Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Friday he was legally barred from promoting his own financial interests and that he then proceeded to do just that.
At a Friday morning event hosted by the news publication Axios, Mnuchin encouraged attendees to buy tickets to the new movie, Lego Batman. Mnuchin produced the film before he was nominated to run the Treasury by Donald Trump, but he denied in the next breath that he was promoting his own business interests by hawking the movie..
“What’s a movie we should see?” Axios reporter Mike Allen asked Mnuchin.
“Well I’m not allowed to promote anything that I’m involved in, so I just want to have the legal disclosure. You’ve asked me the question, and I am not promoting any product. But you should send all your kids to Lego Batman,” Mnuchin said to laughter from the audience.
Mnuchin’s production company, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, “receives an income stream with respect to each film” it produces, according to Mnuchin’s personal financial disclosure statement.
In an ethics agreement on file with the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), Mnuchin pledged to divest from the company within 120 days of his confirmation. His comments on Friday suggest that he is not yet fully divested.
A Treasury spokesperson did not respond to questions about the schedule of that divestment, but denied that Mnuchin had promoted the film by telling people to go see it.
“As his statement reflects, the Secretary clearly recognized that he generally may not promote private interests and specifically gave the legal disclosure that he was not promoting a movie, but answering a question he was asked directly,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Mnuchin’s comments illustrate the continued ethical issues raised by an administration staffed with high-level officials previously involved in numerous outside business activities. Such public promotions of officials’ business interests have drawn ethical scrutiny for other Trump officials recently.
Mnuchin’s legal disclaimer appeared designed to avoid the types of conflict of interest questions that dogged another senior administration official, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, after she plugged Ivanka Trump’s fashion line during a television interview.
"It's a wonderful line," Conway said during the February Fox News appearance. "I'm going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody."
That earned a rebuke from OGE, which chided White House counsel Stefan Passantino for his unwillingness to sanction Conway for her apparent violation of federal laws barring officials from using their positions for their own or a friend or colleague’s financial benefit.
Passantino had told OGE director Walter Shaub that he had advised Conway to avoid future violations of that law, but indicated that he considered the matter closed. Shaub respodned that a lack of more stringent punishment would fail to deter future violations.
“When an employee's conduct violates [the law at issue], disciplinary action serves to deter future misconduct,” Shaub replied to Passantino. “Not taking disciplinary action against a senior official under such circumstances risks undermining the ethics program.”
Passantino’s characterization of Conway’s comments mirrors Mnuchin’s remarks on Friday. She “made the statement in a light, off-hand manner,” he told Shaub.
Shaub’s reply expressed broader concern about the White House’s policy on federal ethics rules. Passantino claimed in his letter to Shaub that White House employees were not bound by OGE regulations, an assertion that Shaub called “extraordinary” and “incorrect.”