That’s been a familiar refrain of late about the nation’s new treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, who staffers say has kept an unusually low profile at the White House and on Capitol Hill even as the administration pushed for its $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, FOX Business has learned.
According to staffers inside the Treasury Department, Yellen is barely in the White House these days except for occasionally meeting with the president or for an occasional TV interview, people with knowledge of the matter say. She does most of her work remotely and did very few — if any — face-to-face meetings on the Hill negotiating with key senators for the passage of the massive stimulus bill, these people add.
Staffers say her immediate deputies have also worked mainly remotely during the early days of the administration. Many lower-level staffers have been working at the Treasury Department headquarters adjacent to the White House, despite the continued pandemic, people with direct knowledge of the matter tell FOX Business.
Some staffers inside Treasury say Yellen would normally be a key player in the negotiations. Her absence in face-to-face talks, particularly with key lawmakers needed to pass the bill, may have contributed to the drawn out nature of the negotiations that only recently received Senate approval this weekend. The bill now heads to the House this week before landing on Biden’s desk.
As Treasury Secretary, Yellen holds one of the most important cabinet positions in government overseeing the $25.3 trillion U.S. economy. She and her senior staff are privy to top-secret information and the handling and safeguarding of that information while working remotely could prove problematic, some staffers are saying.
Despite the Democrats controlling both the House and the Senate, President Biden faced blowback on key aspects of the bill even by fellow Democrats, such as West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.
A Treasury Department spokeswoman declined comment but would not deny that Yellen spends most of her time working remotely.
A person close to Yellen, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said her work habits did not hinder the negotiations, and that senior Treasury officials including Yellen, played a key role in forming the $1.9 trillion package. The person would not say whether Yellen personally engaged with key senators during the difficult negotiations.
The person also pointed out that the Biden administration has adopted different, safer work protocols than the Trump administration, where White House gatherings with mask-less attendees often turned into COVID-19 super-spreader events.
“At the end of the day, the legislation got done,” this person said.
Of course, part of Yellen’s absence can be attributed to new pandemic work protocols, where many people across various businesses and in government have opted to do their jobs remotely. Yellen is 74 and, based on her age, is in one of the higher risk categories for the virus.
A Treasury spokeswoman wouldn’t say whether Yellen has been vaccinated; President Biden, 78, has been fully vaccinated since mid-January. The president has also received criticism for keeping an extraordinary low profile and in his case not holding a formal press conference since formally taking control of the White House.
Still, what’s striking about Yellen and her senior staff’s absence is that it is in stark contrast to the work habits of Trump’s key economic advisers, such as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and his top deputies during their various COVID-19 economic relief efforts.
During the past year of the pandemic, key Trump officials also at times worked remotely, though the emphasis was to be in the office as much as possible. When the Trump administration was pressing for its various pandemic economic relief bills it was “all hands-on deck,” according to one senior Trump aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Mnuchin and his senior economic staffers were working around the clock and in person at the White House and at Treasury headquarters during the negotiations, this person said.
Mnuchin, who turned 58 in December and was Trump’s point man in the talks, could also be seen roaming the halls of the Capitol building wearing a mask as he and his team personally met with key players in the debate, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the person added.
Mnuchin confirmed to FOX Business his hands-on approach during the pandemic legislation talks last year.
There was a “limited number of people come into U.S. Treasury throughout the operation to prepare and execute on the legislation,” he said in a text message. “We set up temperature checks and followed social distancing guidelines.”