The Memo: Republicans fret over Cohn’s exit

The Memo: Republicans fret over Cohn’s exit
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpAccuser says Trump should be afraid of the truth Woman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Shulkin says he has White House approval to root out 'subversion' at VA MORE’s populist supporters are shedding no tears over the departure of Gary Cohn as chief economic adviser, but it is a different story among the broader universe of Republicans.

Lawmakers and other experts are worried about the former Goldman Sachs executive’s departure, fearing it removes one of the more seasoned and realistic voices from Trump’s orbit.

One veteran of former President George W. Bush’s administration, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said of Cohn: “He’s a forceful personality, and even if he is replaced with a free trader, it may not be a free trader who is comfortable standing up to someone like Trump. It’s hard to find someone with both the physical fortitude and a global perspective. That’s the challenge.”

Anxiety is also rising in the business community, according to Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management.

“The long and short of it is that Gary Cohn was one of the rare, truly pragmatic non-ideologues that was revered by the business community and had an extraordinarily calming effect on the business community,” Sonnenfeld said. “Relative to much of the team around him, he held his ego very much in check.”

The Dow Jones industrial average fell by a modest amount on Wednesday, its first full day of trading after news of Cohn’s resignation broke.

Cohn resigned in the end after losing a battle with more populist and nationalist voices — chief among them Peter Navarro, the head of the White House National Trade Council — over tariffs on steel and aluminum.

But the departure may have been a long time coming, both critics and admirers of Cohn say.

“Staff are there to advance the president’s agenda and shape the president’s agenda, not to advance their own,” said Barry Bennett, a senior adviser to the 2016 Trump campaign. “The guy in the round room needs to make all the decisions.”

The populists around Trump had long been suspicious of Cohn. Their skepticism was rooted not only in his status as a registered Democrat, but in the belief that he differed fundamentally from the “America First” worldview that got Trump elected.

“Gary’s entire job was predicated on trying to convince the president of the United States to go against his gut instincts, and I think he found out that you can only survive doing that for so long,” said one former Trump administration official.

It is still unclear precisely what action Trump will take on tariffs. He has said that a 25 percent tariff on steel and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum will be enacted.

But White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Wednesday that there could be
“potential carveouts for Mexico and Canada” in the tariffs policy, a move she cast as determined by national security considerations.

Sanders also sought to play down reports of administration “chaos” following Cohn’s decision to resign.

Much media coverage has been devoted to the unusually high level of turnover in the Trump White House, along with speculation that other major figures could soon exit. Rumors have swirled for some time around national security adviser H.R. McMaster, though the White House has denied his job is at risk.

Even voices that are broadly sympathetic to Trump admit that the highly unconventional nature of this administration makes it a less appealing option for would-be recruits.

Peter Morici, a University of Maryland economist, said most economists “don’t want to work for him.”

Morici, who noted that he is broadly supportive of efforts to protect the U.S. steel and aluminum industries, said economists who might be approached to join the administration would ask themselves, “What do you get out of it? You are in and out in six months or a year, everything you do has to be passed by his son-in-law, and you have a general [chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE] between you and the president.”

In addition, Morici noted, many economists “are ambivalent about the president’s ambitions — and ambivalent about him.”

Prominent Republican lawmakers have expressed discomfort with the idea that Trump might soon have few advisers willing to counterbalance voices like Navarro’s.

Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynLawmakers feel pressure on guns Kasich’s campaign website tones down gun language after Florida shooting Murphy: Trump’s support for background check bill shows gun politics ‘shifting rapidly’ MORE (R-Texas), asked about Cohn’s departure by reporters on Wednesday, said, “I don’t think it’s good news.”

Cornyn added that he was “concerned who the president will turn to for advice.”

Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyTop GOP candidate drops out of Ohio Senate race Newly declassified memos detail extent of improper Obama-era NSA spying Overnight Tech: FCC won't fine Colbert over Trump joke | Trump budget slashes science funding | Net neutrality comment period opens MORE (R-Pa.) joined the chorus of GOP voices expressing concern about the tariffs themselves. In an interview with Philadelphia radio station WPHT, Toomey said that tariffs “are a big mistake.”

Toomey also asserted “the policy is very, very counterproductive. It makes no sense.”

The tariff proposal drew new criticism from overseas Wednesday, with the German minister for economics, Brigitte Zypries, warning that the risk of a trade war was “serious” and a British trade minister, Greg Hands, saying the United Kingdom’s government was “very disappointed by the president’s apparent intention to do this.”

The Trump administration did make some efforts to ameliorate those concerns. Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossTrump gets recommendation for steep curbs on imported steel, risking trade war Analysis: Outdoor recreation was 2 percent of GDP in 2016 Overnight Finance: Breaking down Trump's budget | White House finally releases infrastructure plan | Why it faces a tough road ahead | GOP, Dems feud over tax-cut aftermath | Markets rebound MORE told CNBC, “We’re not trying to blow up the world. There’s no intention of that.”

But with Cohn gone, it looks like full steam ahead for the tariffs and for a more protectionist approach in general.

Such a move is in line with the president’s own impulses — but more orthodox Republicans take little comfort from that.

“My expectation is, this is who the president is,” said the Bush administration veteran. “Staff can only constrain the true nature of a president for so long.”


The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.