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Mnuchin prepares for his close-up

Say this for Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin: After Tuesday, he’s no longer the Trump cabinet pick that Republicans are most worried about confirming. (The distinction now belongs to Tom Price, the Georgia congressman in line to become Trump’s healthcare czar, if he can survive revelations that he took official actions to benefit companies in which he’d recently purchased stock.) That Mnuchin doesn’t top the endangered list isn’t an achievement in itself, but it is a reflection of the ground he’s made up since he got the nod six weeks ago.

Back on Nov. 30, a day after word of his selection leaked, Mnuchin made a pair of cable news appearances judged by Trump insiders as a major problem. On CNBC, the former Goldman Sachs executive dramatically reversed Trump’s proposed tax policy by declaring the administration’s plan would include “no absolute tax cut for the upper class.” On Fox Business News, he forged housing finance policy for Trump where none had existed, announcing it’s time to privatize mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The bigger issue was stylistic. Before his first conversations with the Senators who will decide his fate, Mnuchin appeared to be comporting himself as if he already had the job. And if anything, Mnuchin’s performance in his first mock hearing was even worse — though mercifully behind closed doors. He came off as prickly and defensive when grilled about his stewardship of OneWest Bank, a California-based lender that Democrats are eager to portray as behaving predatorily toward distressed homeowners after the housing collapse. But insiders say in a series of follow-up practice sessions, Mnuchin has managed to sand off some of his rougher edges. “He’s done several mock hearings, and that’s why they’re there,” a Trump transition official says. “Not being used to the process, he started out rocky. But he’s improved to the point where the team is very comfortable with him testifying.”

Mnuchin will face a live murder board Thursday, when he appears before the Senate Finance Committee for what promises to be an all-day slog. As part of his final preparation for the hearing, he met Tuesday with finance panel staffers from both parties. “I was candidly surprised by how well he’s adapted to the role and learned to articulate Trump’s policy preferences in a way that’s pretty sophisticated,” one source familiar with the process says. “He’s matured.”

The Treasury post, as much as any in the cabinet, requires a careful calibration between behaving like a principal and a staffer. As Mnuchin’s cable appearances demonstrated, even a Secretary designate can move markets with his words: Fannie and Freddie stocks surged more than 40% after he said the government should liberate them from their conservatorship. That doesn’t mean he should — or reshape his boss’s tax plan off-the-cuff. Those tracking Mnuchin’s progress say he’s internalized the lesson, demonstrating less of a principal’s entitlement and more of a staffer’s humility. But he’s still capable of a high-flying banker’s blindness to appearances. On Monday, he was spotted with a group at Trump’s new Washington hotel, getting a bottle of champagne sabered. We’ll see Thursday if he saves the cork-popping for the end of the day.

Tory Newmyer
@torynewmyer
tory_newmyer@fortune.com

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