Mnuchin's Right-Hand-Man Miller Is Unknown Trade War Soldier

(Bloomberg) -- Seven years ago, Eli Miller was an unpaid intern giving tours on Capitol Hill. Now, he’s in the middle of an effort to avert a full-blown trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

As chief of staff and right-hand man to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Miller’s helping to work back-channels with Beijing in an effort to restart trade talks, two people familiar with the matter said.

The China talks are a test for Miller, 35, a political insider who channels President Donald Trump’s instincts but lacks experience in diplomacy, business and the inner workings of Treasury. His performance will contribute to the outcome of a confrontation that may shape the future of many of America’s key industries, not to mention his own career; one predecessor, Sheryl Sandberg, is now chief operating officer at Facebook Inc.

In addition to a trade war, Miller must help Mnuchin navigate a slew of other challenges that could rattle markets -- a rising federal deficit; sanctions against North Korea, Venezuela and Iran; a possible Democratic victory in midterm congressional elections. But Miller is seen less as a Wall Street liaison than consigliere to Mnuchin, helping ensure his boss’s political survival in a White House full of adversaries vying for influence.

“He really understands how I like to work and how we work together,” Mnuchin said Monday in an interview. The pair got to know each other while traveling together during the Trump campaign. Mnuchin and his wife are godparents to Miller’s two-year-old son.

“He has the ability to effectively communicate with me, and for me,” the Treasury secretary said.

Tight Circle

Former Treasury officials who departed in the last year say Miller has been overwhelmed by the responsibilities of his job and often serves as more of a body-man than chief of staff to Mnuchin. He tightly controls access to the secretary and has created a small inner-circle, angering some senior officials who say the strategy has muddled some policy-making efforts, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former government officials.

Despite those complaints, current and former officials acknowledge that Miller has increased access to Mnuchin for people working on key initiatives, such as sanctions and debt management.

Miller said in an interview that his role in the department is “making sure everyone is connected, on the same page and working toward the same common goal.” He attends most of the administration’s trade meetings with or on behalf of Mnuchin.

Chiefs of staff typically have no job description, meaning the role is defined by the needs of their boss. That can range from ensuring the secretary’s priorities are implemented to being a confidant and political hand, according to interviews with four former Treasury chiefs of staff.

“When unusual controversies arise or there’s an issue that’s not squarely in someone’s portfolio, it becomes yours,” said Christian Weideman, who held the role under Secretary Jacob Lew during the Obama administration. A lawyer, Weideman spent time at the White House and as Treasury’s deputy general counsel before he became chief of staff.

‘Very Valuable’

Miller is described as having a “do whatever it takes” attitude by those who worked with him before he joined Treasury. He worked as a fundraiser for Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s campaign before joining Trump’s, where he’d often crash on friends’ couches in New York so that he could make face-to-face pitches rather than cold-call donors, according to one person familiar with the matter.

“He doesn’t have an ego,” Mnuchin said.

While some say he is short-tempered, Miller has also shown he doesn’t have difficulty being direct with with his bosses, said Wayne Berman, who was chairman of Rubio’s presidential campaign and is now at Blackstone Group.

“It can be challenging in politics to speak directly and candidly and give their best advice and give bad news to candidates,” Berman said. “Candor in the face of power is challenging, and Eli has mastered that and that has made him very valuable.”

Watchdog Investigations

Miller has had to deliver his share of bad news to Mnuchin. He triggered a review by the department’s watchdog after taking a free private-jet trip to Palm Beach that a hedge fund founder provided in March 2017. The review found that Miller didn’t break any ethics laws, but urged more caution. A separate review was launched in part after Miller inquired about using a military plane for Mnuchin’s honeymoon a year ago.

Miller’s job isn’t subject to Senate confirmation but traditionally requires top secret security clearance. He started in Washington giving tours of Capitol Hill for former House Republican Speaker John Boehner’s congressional office. He then learned fundraising as a junior-level financier for a Koch Industries-backed conservative advocacy group in Ohio, where he also got his masters in business administration.

Miller later did advance work for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign before serving as a deputy finance director for Rubio during the 2016 Republican primaries. He was one of Mnuchin’s first hires on the Trump campaign in May 2016.

Miller’s work on the campaign alongside Mnuchin meant that he has a full understanding of Trump’s economic agenda, giving him an insider’s edge, Mnuchin said.

‘Unidentified Man’

As chief of staff, Miller has traveled with the secretary for more foreign trips than his predecessors. He’s been seen listening intently to Mnuchin address reporters on the sidelines of meetings from Buenos Aires to Doha. During a tour of the Old City in Jerusalem in October, Miller nervously focused on assuring privacy for Mnuchin and his wife as they visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Wailing Wall.

Miller takes comfort in having stayed largely below the radar. He often quips about being described as an “unidentified man” by the Daily Mail when he was spotted in June accompanying Mnuchin to the home of Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner.

For now, maintaining his low profile is Miller’s preference -- even in an administration where aides compete for attention. His approach has contributed to keeping Mnuchin in the president’s good graces -- he’s one of Trump’s only close advisers not to have been publicly chastised in a tweet or other public comment.

“It’s a gut feeling,” Miller said of his management style. “I try to look around the corner and see what’s coming next.”

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