John Kelly had to break up argument between US trade officials: report

John Kelly had to break up argument between US trade officials: report
© Stefani Reynolds

Former White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE in 2017 reportedly had to break up a confrontation between former White House aides Stephen Bannon and Gary CohnGary David CohnTrump says US will hit China with new round of tariffs next month Gary Cohn bemoans 'dramatic impact' of Trump tariffs Press: Acosta, latest to walk the plank MORE before the two came to blows over their stances on trade policy with China.

Bannon told NPR that he, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro and Cohn would often become engaged in significant disputes over U.S. trade policy toward China, with Bannon and Navarro believing that Cohn, the former director of the National Economic Council, did not take seriously the economic threat posed by Chinese trade policies.

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In one meeting, the three men came to such a heated discussion that Kelly was forced to intervene, according to NPR. Blowups between members of the group were reportedly so common that they even occurred in the Oval Office in front of President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE.

"We came loaded," Bannon told NPR. "The most intense fights and debates in the White House, OK, were about this issue of tariffs, but tariffs as a proxy to the great economic war with China that we were engaged in."

According to one former State Department official, the three would engage in heated disputes in front of visiting Chinese diplomats, with whom the administration is seeking to negotiate a trade deal.

"They were having fights in front of the Chinese delegation, which is like a cardinal sin of negotiating," Susan Thornton, former acting assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told NPR.

White House advisers, according to the NPR report, would split into two camps to discuss trade policy with China. Bannon and Navarro staunchly backed tariff proposals, while Cohn and then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster preferred a more free trade approach to the economy. 

"A couple of times we had blowups. I mean, there was a blowup in the Oval Office," Bannon said, according to NPR. "[Navarro] pulls out one of his charts, which the president loves. The next thing you know, we had this big blowup. We had to exit and go back into the Roosevelt Room."

Cohn told NPR that Bannon and Navarro favored visual aides with glossy charts and images of supposed effects of U.S.-China trade, while he preferred raw economic data.

Cohn accused Bannon and Navarro of using unverified claims and charts to make their pitch to the president. He said his job was to present the president with facts. 

"From time to time, there were people that tried to use unfootnoted, undocumented facts," Cohn told NPR. "It's my job to get rid of the undocumented, unfootnoted facts and make sure that those don't enter the Oval Office."

Navarro is the only person mention in the report that remains at the White House, where he currently serves as a trade adviser to the president and has been involved with efforts to reach a deal with Chinese negotiators on a range of issues.

Bannon, formerly of Breitbart News, left the White House after being ousted by Kelly, who himself was later replaced by current acting chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyNew witness claims firsthand account of Trump's push for Ukraine probes Trump files to dismiss lawsuit from Bolton aide on impeachment testimony OMB official to testify in impeachment probe if subpoenaed after others refused MORE.

Updated at 9:22 a.m.