Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was growing increasingly impatient as he sparred with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) in a recent hearing — and he did not hesitate to show his annoyance.
In previous years, “they did not treat the secretary of the treasury this way,” Mnuchin said with more than a hint of indignation. “So if this is the way you want to treat me, then I’ll rethink whether I voluntarily come back here to testify.”
Waters admonished him that past secretaries had not sought to limit their testimony and that “if you wish to leave, you may.”
Ultimately, Mnuchin decided to stay. But the contentious exchange in the House Financial Services Committee last week was the type of testimony that has become commonplace during Donald Trump’s presidency — as Cabinet officials and other appointees upend normally staid congressional hearings with performances that, at times, appear to be designed for the viewer in chief.
It’s another way those around Trump — or those seeking to influence him — are speaking to the president through television, as some Cabinet officials use the power of the president’s favorite medium to showcase their aggressive defense of the administration and their eagerness to challenge increasingly antagonistic Democratic lawmakers.
“They are all putting on performances,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “They all feel like they’re more likely going to get an ‘attaboy’ if they appear more combative.”
Nowhere was that dynamic more effective than with now-Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in the fall, when Trump was impressed by his confrontational testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee as he alternated between teary-eyed and furious during his defense against accusations of sexual assault.
Though he had been disappointed by Kavanaugh’s lackluster self-defense on Fox News earlier that week, Trump was “riveted” by his fiery performance on Sept. 27 — which at one point was so aggressive that the nominee later apologized to a Democratic senator, Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), who had questioned him about his drinking.
In February, then-acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker took a page out of Kavanaugh’s playbook, sparring repeatedly with Democratic lawmakers pressing him on the extent of his involvement with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“Now, in your capacity as acting attorney general,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) pressed Whitaker, “have you ever been asked to approve any request or action to be taken by the special counsel?”
Whitaker paused before answering. “Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” he responded. “I am here voluntarily. I — we have agreed to five-minute rounds.”
Some in the room chortled. Others groaned. Nadler momentarily looked stunned, then couldn’t help but laugh.
White House officials were thrilled at the combative approach Whitaker took at the hearing shortly before William P. Barr was confirmed as attorney general, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, while Democrats said they were dismayed.
Several other Cabinet members have had tense exchanges while sitting in the congressional witness chair — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have irritated lawmakers by declining to directly answer questions or saying they don’t have the data at hand to answer specific inquiries.
But as much as Trump may love his secretaries pushing back on Democrats, he also is quick to undercut Cabinet officials who have delivered subpar performances in public, particularly when it leads to negative media coverage.
Last month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faced bipartisan backlash after she struggled to defend the Trump administration’s decision to zero out funding for the Special Olympics in testimony on Capitol Hill. Questioning from Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) stirred the furor over the proposed $17.6 million in cuts to the popular program, which the administration had put forward in previous years but was ignored by Congress.
“Do you know how many kids are going to be affected by that cut, Madam Secretary?” Pocan asked DeVos.
The secretary, smiling, brushed off the question.
“Mr. Pocan, let me just say again we had to make some different decisions with this budget,” she said. She admitted that she did not know how many children would be affected while praising the Special Olympics as an “awesome organization” that has ample private support. But the public damage was done as Pocan’s office posted a clip of the exchange on Twitter that garnered more than 1.1 million views in less than 24 hours.
Two days after DeVos’s appearance before the House appropriations panel, Trump quickly reversed his administration’s cuts.
“I have overridden my people,” he told reporters.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) acknowledged that some Cabinet officials were more “combative” than others and that they reflected the sensibilities of the man who nominated them. But the senator also had another explanation for some of the more memorable congressional performances from Trump’s Cabinet. “I think some of them are just not good at this,” he said.
But defenders of the administration say Cabinet officials have no choice but to punch back when faced with increasingly hostile Democrats in Congress, particularly with some of the White House’s most prominent adversaries holding the gavel.
That appeared to be the case with the recent House Financial Services Committee hearing, a powerful panel helmed by Waters who faced off against the treasury secretary for more than four minutes in an increasingly uncomfortable tit-for-tat about how much longer Mnuchin would stay and answer questions from lawmakers.
“Mnuchin was being, I thought, respectful,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a member of the committee who witnessed the exchange. Some Democrats, King said, “basically make Democratic partisan talking points in their questions . . . and the Cabinet member feels obligated to defend himself and defend the president.”
King added: “There’s performing going on all around.”
Another way that members of Trump’s Cabinet have defied Congress is by not showing up.
Earlier this year, a handful of secretaries — including Mnuchin, Nielsen and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar — declined congressional invitations to testify during and shortly after the partial government shutdown, although those secretaries have since appeared before Congress.
More recently, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — embroiled in legal proceedings over the Trump administration’s decision to add a question on citizenship to the 2020 Census — infuriated congressional Democrats when he declined to appear before the House and Senate appropriations panels to field questions about his department’s budget request.
“I presume it was because he didn’t want to undermine the administration’s legal position as it relates to the census,” said Schatz, a member of the Senate appropriations panel that would’ve questioned the commerce secretary. “Because every time he goes to Congress, he lies and gets caught.”
Schatz then paused. “Did I just say that out loud?”
Damian Paletta contributed to this report.