WASHINGTON — In the latest staff shakeup to rattle the White House, President Trump’s most senior economic adviser, former investment banker Gary Cohn, will leave his post in a few weeks, it was announced Tuesday. Cohn leaves after scoring a victory with a vast tax-cut law but suffering a defeat with the looming imposition of U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
“It has been an honor to serve my country and enact pro-growth economic policies to benefit the American people, in particular the passage of historic tax reform,” Cohn said in a statement distributed by Trump’s press office. “I am grateful to the President for giving me this opportunity and wish him and the Administration great success in the future.”
It was not immediately clear who would replace Cohn, a free-trade Democrat who served as president and chief operating officer for the Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs for a decade but found himself in frequent clashes with the protectionist forces in Trump’s West Wing. Allies of Stephen Bannon, the nationalist former senior strategist purged last year, mockingly referred to him as “Globalist Gary.”
Cohn also found himself at odds with Trump himself, notably after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., where one counter-protester was killed. The president said that marchers opposing neo-Nazis and anti-Semites were as responsible for the violence as the far-right demonstrators, leading Cohn to criticize his boss in an interview in the Financial Times.
An administration official said Cohn had been discussing his departure with the president for a few weeks.
“Gary has been my chief economic advisor and did a superb job in driving our agenda, helping to deliver historic tax cuts and reforms and unleashing the American economy once again,” Trump said in a statement. “He is a rare talent, and I thank him for his dedicated service to the American people.”
Cohn’s departure raised questions about ongoing economic issues — like the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) binding the U.S., Canada and Mexico. He was a known supporter of the pact, while U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro both fit in the nationalist wing of the White House.
“The chances of more bad economic policy coming from the White House dramatically increased,” a former White House staffer told Yahoo News, discussing Cohn’s departure. “Hopefully, the president will bring in someone who shares Gary’s point of view, so there can be robust policy debates, instead of everything being dictated by Navarro and Lighthizer. Also, NAFTA deathwatch begins now.”
The former staffer also predicted that Cohn’s exit could lead to turmoil on Wall Street.
“Be interesting to watch market tomorrow,” the former staffer said.
A Trump ally who spoke to Yahoo News framed Cohn’s departure as a defeat for the former Goldman Sachs executive, who, before breaking with Trump after Charlottesville, was said to be in the running to head the Federal Reserve or become White House chief of staff.
“The Swamp devours Wall Street’s golden boy Gary Cohn,” the Trump ally said in a text message. “Didn’t become fed chair, didn’t become CoS, didn’t stop tariffs.”
Cohn’s departure came shortly after Trump declared “I like conflict” among senior aides but defended his White House as a great place to work — despite the unusually high staff turnover, the confusion over major policies and the unexpected salvos from the Twitterer-in-chief.
“It’s tough, I like conflict, I like having two people with different points of view — and I certainly have that — and then I make a decision,” he said at a joint press conference with visiting Prime Minister Stefan Löfven of Sweden. “But I like watching it, I like seeing it, and I think it’s the best way to go.”
Earlier in the day, Trump had denied that his West Wing was in “chaos,” but added cryptically, “I still have some people that I want to change.” That poured fuel on speculation that he could part ways with Cabinet officials with whom he has had major disagreements, such as Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin or Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or senior aides like national security adviser H.R. McMaster and chief of staff John Kelly.
Asked at the press conference whether his comment might have referred to Sessions, Trump told reporters: “I don’t really want to talk about that” before going on an extended riff about what a great place his West Wing is.
“The White House has tremendous energy, it has tremendous spirit. It is a great place to be working. Many, many people want every single job,” he said.
“You know, I read where ‘Oh, gee, maybe people don’t want to work for Trump.’ And believe me, everyone wants to work in the White House,” Trump declared. “They all want a piece of that Oval Office, they want a piece of the West Wing. Not only in terms of it looks great on their résumé — it’s just a great place to work.”
But he again alluded to possible staffing changes.
“There’ll be people — I’m not going to be specific — but there’ll be people that change,” he said. “Sometimes they want to go out and do something else. But they all want to be in the White House. So many people want to come in. I have a choice of anybody. I could take any position in the West Wing, and I’ll have a choice of the 10 top people having to do with that position.”
In fact, however, the administration has approached Republicans in Congress, at trade associations, think tanks and in the private sector to fill various jobs in the executive branch, only to be rebuffed, according to people who have turned down White House overtures.
And the Trump administration has been slow to nominate candidates to fill important positions. Of 638 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, 218 have no nominee, according to the non-partisan Partnership for Public Service. (To the delight of conservatives, judges have been the exception).
The Trump administration has seen remarkable turnover. According to data from a Brookings Institution report cited by the New York Times, the turnover rate of Trump’s staff in his first year — 34 percent — was higher than any White House in decades. He is on his second national security adviser (his third if you count a placeholder early last year), his second chief of staff and will be hiring his fifth communications director after the sudden resignation of Hope Hicks.
Just last week, the president surprised some senior aides by announcing tariffs of 25 percent and 10 percent on imports of steel and aluminum, respectively. While not shocking in terms of ideology — Trump has been vocally protectionist for decades — he short-circuited the process for announcing such a major policy. Senior aides told reporters that no announcement was imminent. The White House was unable to give details of the proposal, because none had cleared the complex legal and interagency process that typically precedes a rollout. Lawmakers allied with the administration but caught unawares reached out to reporters for any scraps of information about a decision that, critics warn, could trigger a trade war.
Former chief of staff Reince Priebus says in an upcoming book that the chaos looks even worse from inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by 50,” Priebus says, according to an excerpt from the book published last month.
Trump’s efforts to deny that his administration is particularly volatile are also nothing new. After a string of departures last year — press secretary Sean Spicer, Priebus and blink-and-you-missed-his-tenure communications director Anthony Scaramucci, Trump took to Twitter on July 31.
His message? “No WH chaos!”
(Cover tile photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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