Washington is a world capital but also a village where the personal is the political and vice versa. Republicans and Democrats, enemies by day, live peacefully at night, a number in the square mile of mansions abutting Rock Creek in northwest D.C. that combines the best, and worst, of Park Avenue, Beverly Hills and Palm Beach. Georgetown is more historic but Massachusetts Avenue Heights, with its short commute to the halls of power, is where many in the Trump administration chose to settle.
There, amid the permanent plutocracy, lives Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin in a $12 million mansion a five-minute walk from the $15 million mansion of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, purchased in 2006 and renovated for many years after. Smack next door to the metal tycoon is Kellyanne Conway. Vernon Jordan is across the street, David Bradley, the owner of The Atlantic magazine, is three doors down, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is just across the way. One presidential contender, Sen. John Edwards, lived on the same block when he campaigned on a promise to end Two Americas while residing in only one. Cross the narrow creek and there are Ivanka and Jared.
Yes, they all get along. Ross bought his $10 million Beaux Arts house from arts patron and philanthropist Adrienne Arsht, who then moved a few blocks closer to Deripaska. If she wanted to, Arscht—who donated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign but invites Senate and White House Republicans to her frequent dinners—is so close she could eavesdrop on house parties he’s not here to have. For Ross, a few feet up his driveway and he’s practically on the front steps of Obama’s Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker.
There’s just one problem in paradise, albeit an elite one. In the midst of all this residential splendor, Deripaska’s house, with its seven bedrooms and 11 baths, sits conspicuously vacant, the only sign of activity a black van in the circular drive and security lights going on and off. They don’t cast the warm glow he might have pictured when he gutted the place—guests gathered in front of a fireplace imported from England in a dining room lit by a chandelier from the Paris Opera House before adjourning to watch a movie in his theater-sized screening room.
What happens to the tycoon’s house is of great curiosity in Massachusetts Heights, and the personal and political intersected last week when Mnuchin, in his official capacity, was summoned to a classified briefing by the new Democratic majority to explain his proposal, issued in the last days of GOP control of the House, to ease sanctions on Deripaska, who once employed Paul Manafort as a consultant and later sued him for $19 million. Anyone who disagreed with Mnuchin’s actions had 30 days to object.
Democrats, now in control, did. Nancy Pelosi called the session, in which Mnuchin did little more than read from unclassified material lawmakers already had, a “waste of time.” Quietly Republicans agree. Sanctions are a rare area of bipartisan consensus in the face of Trump’s massive resistance to punishing Moscow’s attacks on democracy.
All of this attracted more notice in Mass Ave Heights than another hearing might—on the merits in the case of Conway (and Mr. Kellyanne Conway, as Trump calls husband and constitutional lawyer George, who famously tweets against Trump’s most egregious behavior), and Ross. They might also be concerned, along with other residents, on the collateral basis of real estate. It’s hard to lower property values in the most expensive neighborhood in Washington but a Specially Designated National, or SDN, tying up the most expensive plot of land in the city at the least casts a pall.
For his part, Mnuchin is almost as absent a neighbor as Deripaska. He no longer spends weekends swimming laps in his indoor pool but is in his house in Bel Air since his third wife, model and actress Louise Linton, decamped to Los Angeles. She flamed out in Washington, wanting a government jet for her honeymoon, annotating photos with what designer she was wearing, seductively smiling, Bond girl-like, in a gloved hand holding a sheet of new dollar bills. Linton is now CEO of Dune Entertainment, which Mnuchin promised to divest before he was confirmed. Ethics lawyers don’t think putting your wife in charge counts as divestiture, but that’s another story.
Since the rear of the Deripaska’s house is surrounded by a real wall, unlike the non-existent one Trump has falsely claimed the Obamas built, it’s hard to see if the Russian’s garden has grown weedy or his pool is crumbling. According to court filings, the last time Deripaska visited on a diplomatic passport was around 2016.
Deripaska has so many houses, what’s one more or less? Rather than exempt Deripaska’s businesses, couldn’t Mnuchin carve out a small exception to the regulation that says no American can have business dealings, direct or indirect with anyone under sanctions which would allow it to go on the market?
Mnuchin just carved out an exception for bankers that puts IRS agents back on the job, despite the government shutdown, so that mortgage lending could go on. If it’s good enough for bankers, why not for real estate agents and the D.C. tax coffers which could use a windfall?
Not to be soft on a zip code where a teardown goes for $10 million, but homeowners all over the country are fighting Airbnb for changing the character of their neighborhoods. The innermost tycoon in Putin’s inner circle put his finger in the eye of democracy, along with his heart and about $10 million, into making himself a palace fit for an oligarch right in the middle of the capitol. In freeing the 30th Street mansion, Washington would hurt Deripaska as much as any other sanction. It won’t make us even, but it’s a start.