Gary Cohn, President Donald Trump’s top economic adviser, has been rumored to be on the brink of leaving the White House for months but stayed for one main reason: to stop the president from imposing steep tariffs.
By Thursday afternoon, Cohn had lost the fight.
In a meeting with steel industry executives, Trump announced plans for a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports.
The decision came after a frantic 24 hours in which Cohn and others tried to talk Trump off the ledge. At one point, aides were sure Trump would make the announcement. Then they said he wouldn’t. Finally, sitting alongside steel executives, he did.
The Dow promptly tanked over 500 points, and Cohn’s allies began wondering if this would be the final insult sending the director of the National Economic Council to the exit.
Cohn nearly quit last summer following the president’s comments about a white supremacist march in Charlottesville
One person close to Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs executive, said he wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually left the chaotic and deeply exhausting administration as a result of the decision. A second person close to Cohn described it as a brutal blow that violated one of the NEC director’s core beliefs—that protectionism is economically backward and won’t lead to increased prosperity.
“It’s just something he feels very passionate about and he is incredibly good at making the case,” this person said, adding that it still isn’t clear if Trump’s decision would be enough to drive out Cohn.
Cohn nearly quit last summer following the president’s comments about a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. After drafting several resignation letters in the wake of the march, Cohn decided he would stay to help drive through the big tax cut bill that passed last year. He endured his time in the presidential doghouse after penning an op-ed critical of Trump.
Cohn did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Now the question is much less whether he could be chief of staff but rather whether Cohn will stay at all
Eight administration officials and outside advisers close to the matter described the tariff decision-making process. They declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the issue. A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Larry Kudlow, an outside Trump adviser often mentioned as a potential successor as NEC director, said he would not be surprised if Cohn felt burned by the steel decision. And he sharply criticized the president for Thursday’s announcement.
“All that will happen with steel tariffs is you will raise prices for all import users and that includes businesses and of course consumers,” Kudlow said. “You will wind up hurting millions of people to help 140,000 people in the steel industry. You will be hurting car buyers. Is that really what you want to do?”
While Cohn isn’t expected to depart immediately, any decision to step down would greatly diminish the influence of the remaining moderates in the White House — and it would further isolate the New York delegation in the West Wing, including Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
Cohn, a Democrat, has weathered constant criticism from Trump’s conservative allies. Every time he’s mentioned as a potential chief of staff, conservatives inside the White House and on Capitol Hill move to try to block such a move.
Now the question is much less whether he could be chief of staff but rather whether Cohn will stay at all.
Trump could still change his mind on the issue if he faces prolonged criticism in the coming days
The tariff decision on Thursday capped several weeks of freewheeling and often caustic debates that one White House aide called “absolute chaos” and featured loud disputes between Cohn and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, a leading advocate of tariffs.
On Wednesday night, Cohn and his allies scrambled to forestall the announcement. They had long hoped Trump would take the full 60 days allowed under the law to make a decision, a time period that would give them more opportunity to make their case to the president about the economic and diplomatic consequences of the decision.
Cohn had been working closely with former staff secretary Rob Porter to postpone, kill or narrow the scope of the tariffs. But Porter’s departure last month amid domestic abuse allegations further complicated their efforts.
Porter had been organizing weekly trade meetings in which senior officials and Cabinet secretaries debated the merits of the proposals. Without Porter to organize the administration’s policy debate, Trump’s advisers reverted back to the chaos of the early days of the administration, where aides fell all over each other to influence the president in any way they could.
Trump speaks during a meeting with leaders of the steel and aluminum industry at the White House on March 1 | Win McNamee/Getty Images
Up until the moment Trump made the announcement on Thursday, senior White House aides were unsure how the meeting would unfold. Asked Thursday morning what Trump was planning, a person closely involved in the administration’s trade talks said, “Who the hell knows.”
Multiple administration officials told POLITICO that Trump was unable to sign documents imposing the tariffs on Thursday because key paperwork had not yet been completed. “The legal work isn’t done,” one administration official said Wednesday night, expressing shock that Trump would make an announcement so quickly.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday that more details on the tariffs — including possible exemptions — would come next week. An industry official said there would not be any tariff exclusions for countries or products except for imports required for military equipment needs, though Trump could still change his mind on the issue if he faces prolonged criticism in the coming days.
Cohn’s skepticism of the tariffs was echoed by most of the members of Trump’s national security team
Cohn has long been suspicious of Navarro, the most vocal trade hawk in the administration.
Navarro, along with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, have been encouraging the president to take aggressive action on trade since the beginning of the administration. And Cohn has come to believe that the men were regularly making their case directly to the president in a bid to short circuit a broader debate among all of Trump’s advisers, according to a person who has spoken to him.
Cohn’s skepticism of the tariffs was echoed by most of the members of Trump’s national security team, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
But Cohn’s last-ditch efforts to sway Trump had little effect. People familiar with the issue said the president was dead-set on imposing tariffs and had already made up his mind to move forward, especially in the aftermath of a barrage of negative news about his staff that infuriated Trump.
Adam Behsudi contributed to this report.