In Donald Trump’s White House, it seems like almost everyone has an exit strategy. But leaving isn’t always a simple affair, and offers—or threats—to leave don’t always pan out.
Gary Cohn considered quitting after President Donald Trump’s Charlottesville comments and wrote multiple resignation letters, a draft op-ed and answers to reporters’ anticipated questions.
The president’s top economic adviser talked to his family about quitting, and his wife urged him to do so. He went to Bedminster for a last-minute meeting with the president last Friday, according to people familiar with the session. But he didn’t quit, instead choosing to criticize Trump in an interview with the Financial Times while sticking around to see what Trump will do – leaving Cohn in limbo and his White House colleagues and others mystified.
A number of senior administration officials have offered to leave or privately told confidants they might, only to be told to stay – or decide to stay on their own. Some were pushed out, or claimed to have resigned after they were pushed out, while one – former press secretary Sean Spicer – publicly quit only to stick around in the building with no clear duties, and after facing months of rumors about his demise.
Jeff Sessions offered his resignation earlier this year, after Trump criticized him at length for the attorney general recusing himself in the Russia probe without notifying Trump in advance. He then was in perpetual limbo for several weeks while Trump publicly castigated him, waiting to be fired only not to be. The two men are still aloof, and Sessions has told others he doesn’t understand the episode.
Steve Bannon vociferously said he was staying in the White House for two weeks after he had supposedly resigned and attacked stories about his departure as “bullshit.” He later told others the decision was entirely his; while senior administration officials said he was ousted after being isolated.
Reince Priebus said he resigned in a private meeting with Trump earlier this summer after Anthony Scaramucci attacked him in comments to the New Yorker, but others believe he was dismissed on Air Force One. Priebus, these people said, told people he was staying around even after he publicly said he resigned and flew to Long Island on Air Force One, a strange move if one had already resigned. He “really wanted to make it a year,” one person said.
Regardless, he wandered around the halls of the Executive Office Building for days, taking occasional meetings, looking for other gigs and taking a vacation before his employment formally concludes at the end of August. Priebus declined to comment.
No one is exactly sure what Spicer is doing these days at the White House; he quit five weeks ago but is still there while negotiating his next gig and meeting with TV networks, while staying on the payroll.
The only clear departure seemed to be Scaramucci, who was ousted by new chief of staff John Kelly after accusing Bannon of performing sexual acrobatics on himself and accusing Priebus of being paranoid in profane terms.
“It’s hard to put together a stable team when you have such an unstable work environment,” said Ron Klain, who worked in the White House under Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
It’s nothing new for Trump, who ran the Trump Organization much the same way. “If he’s unhappy with you, he can make your life miserable, and you know he’s unhappy,” said Louise Sunshine, a longtime real estate executive who worked for him. “He doesn’t really fire people.”
One senior administration official said Trump seems to relish the personnel dramas. He’ll ask aides what they think of each other. He will tell advisers that he is considering firing someone. He doesn’t mind trial balloons. He likes to see how much public embarrassment someone can take.
Many aides are “deeply, deeply miserable,” this official said. “But it’s not easy to just walk out of the White House,” this person added. “You think you’re helping.”
Other advisers attribute the turnover to a president who hasn’t worked with his staff for long and doesn’t necessarily trust them, therefore he keeps them out of the loop and they don’t understand him. “No previous president has hired this many people who had no connection to his campaign or his candidacy or his vision for the country,” said Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser. “I don’t understand many of the hiring decisions he has made.”
Cohn was was deeply upset after the press conference where Trump said “many sides” were to blame for Charlottesville, according to a person who spoke to him, and began plotting a potential exit. He spoke to friends in the business community, who gave him mixed reactions. Privately, some business executives said they didn’t understand how he could continue to work there — and were amazed at the response. But other friends say Cohn is needed to help in a dysfunctional building.
“The business community is depending on Gary Cohn for his substance and his focus to carry forward the most important initiatives. It would be very disappointing if he were to leave in terms of our hopes for the big agenda items that need to get done,” said Kathryn Wylde, who leads the Partnership for New York City, an influential group of CEOs.
After weighing the decision with his family, he went to Bedminster to talk with Trump. He told Trump he would publicly criticize him and then did it in the Financial Times interview that published Friday, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
“The president, as I have said many times, and Gary have spoken many times. Gary has not held back on what his feelings are,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Friday. “He has not held back how he feels about the situation. He’s been very open and honest so I don’t think that anyone was surprised by the comments.”
Yet the moves could isolate Cohn in Washington, where some have questioned his allegiance with Trump after being a longtime Goldman Sachs executive and Democrat. However, people familiar with the discussions say he has developed some good relationships with senior Capitol Hill Republicans working on tax reform and is seen by many as a steadying force in an unsteady administration.
Cohn, however, has become a flashpoint for many of Trump’s nationalist supporters, particularly those affiliated with former chief strategist Steve Bannon, whose Breitbart website often torches Cohn. Stone said he should be fired immediately.
Among many Democrats and business friends, there was little sympathy.
“I don’t think it’s that complicated at all,” Klain said. “Being there indicates their assent to President Trump’s agenda and statements. The idea that they’re somehow doing us a favor by trying to prevent President Trump from making certain decisions is some combination of self-aggrandizement and self-delusion.”
Trump hasn’t commented on Cohn, who told others he chose his words carefully, doesn’t regret the interview — and doesn’t plan to quit, but would not be devastated if the president forced him out.
“I don’t really understand the broader tactical drama of doing interviews with the media saying you contemplated quitting and that you were ready to go and unhappy with the president but are staying,” said Trump biographer Timothy O’Brien.
“Has the president ever accepted public criticism well?” O’Brien added. “It’s a strange form of brinkmanship that I don’t think will go over well.”
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