WASHINGTON — Justin Muzinich, a top aide to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, was deep into writing the administration's tax plan this fall when he got an email from his high school math teacher imploring him to remember his old lessons and not deliver a giveaway for the rich.
"He quickly wrote back and immediately said, 'It's great to hear from you,' " recalled Hoyt Taylor, a retired teacher and squash coach at the elite Groton School in Massachusetts. "He didn't respond on the taxes."
With President Donald Trump's revamping of the tax code taking center stage in Washington, key figures within the administration who for months have been toiling in obscurity are increasingly in the spotlight and under pressure. Scrambling to get a tax bill passed by the end of the year, they are juggling the competing forces of a fractious Congress, frenzied corporate lobbyists and even voices from the past.
Muzinich, a 39-year-old newcomer to Washington, has emerged as a central player in the Trump administration's tax overhaul effort. The former investment banker and hedge fund manager is the Treasury point man on taxes, accompanying Mnuchin into "Big Six" meetings with top Republican lawmakers drafting the tax plan and laying out the administration's positions on which taxes and deductions to cut or preserve. His task is about to get even tougher as the House, which plans to release its bill this week, and the Senate begin the difficult process of hashing out the details and negotiating with the administration over the final legislation.
Brought on as a "counselor" to Mnuchin in March, Muzinich is expected to soon be promoted to a Treasury position that will broaden his portfolio of responsibilities, people familiar with the process told the New York Times.
The rapid rise of Muzinich, a lanky father of two from Manhattan, is emblematic of the new power dynamics in Trump's Washington, where business experience and New York roots are often pathways to top posts. He fits the mold of Trump's top economic advisers, Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, both of whom made a career on Wall Street. While not a Goldman Sachs alumnus, as they are, he brings an extensive background from the world of finance, having been a banker at Morgan Stanley and president of Muzinich & Co., an international investment firm founded by his father.
Yet for all the intricacies of Wall Street finance, Muzinich has had to scale a steep learning curve in understanding the peculiarities of the tax code and the legislative land mines that have roiled previous attempts to rewrite tax law. Some lobbyists have expressed frustration that Muzinich and his Treasury team have been overly secretive about the tax plan and that, despite his business background, he does not always appear enthusiastic to be haggling over tax code deductions with representatives of U.S. industries.
A congressional tax staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private meetings said that it had sometimes been evident that Muzinich was learning on the job in a world of tax and accounting technicians, but added that he had a strong sense of business economics, asked smart questions and was comfortable with data.
Muzinich, who holds an MBA from Harvard and a law degree from Yale, was relatively unknown in tax policy circles before he was plucked from Wall Street to join the Treasury Department. His most notable prior experience in the world of policy came while working on the campaign of one of Trump's arch rivals: Jeb Bush.
Bush first learned of Muzinich because of his work as an informal adviser to the 2012 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, another nemesis of Trump. While Trump's personality-driven campaign was lean on policy, Muzinich was busy overseeing a team that cranked out detailed proposals for Bush on taxes, education and health care. Those attracted little public attention for Bush's failed White House bid, but the experience gave Muzinich a taste of doing thankless work in a political caldron and managing big personalities under pressure.
One of the earliest iterations of the tax framework unveiled by Trump and congressional Republicans last month was the one that Muzinich drafted for Bush in 2015. Like the current plan, that one would have collapsed the personal income tax brackets from seven to three and lowered the rates. It would have doubled the standard deduction, reduced the corporate tax rate to 20 percent from 35 percent, and switched the United States to a "territorial" tax system, as the current plan would also do.
"What impressed me beyond his business experience, which is pretty unique, is that he's just a policy wonk," Bush said in an interview. "Justin has a desire to serve and he's getting to do it at a high level, and I'm really proud of him for doing it."
While many members of the Trump administration have become household names defending the president and his policies on television, Muzinich, who declined to be interviewed, has kept his distance from public political combat and maintained a low profile.
"I think that he is pragmatic," said Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia Business School, where Muzinich taught before joining the Treasury Department. "He's looking for good policy solutions, not policy positions."
The final shape of the tax plan remains to be seen, but Taylor, who said that Muzinich was an above-average student in his Advanced Placement calculus class, is holding out hope that his former pupil will find a way to ensure that the poor are not forgotten.
"I see him in these pictures marching behind Mnuchin and I say, 'Oh, Justin, put in a good word for us,' " Taylor, a self-described liberal, said. "I think people should be caring about other people."