Rumors of Gary Cohn’s demise in Donald Trump’s White House have swirled for weeks. But Cohn is intent on remaining with the administration to finish tax reform — though it’s unclear how long he would stay beyond its passage, according to interviews with several administration officials and close advisers to the president.
Cohn, however, is no longer the clear front-runner to take over as chair of the Federal Reserve next year, people close to the matter said, though they said he also isn’t completely out of the running.
“Is Trump unhappy with Gary right now? Sure he is,” said one senior Republican close to the search for a new Fed chair. “But I’d remind you that Jeff Sessions went through this and he’s still around,” this person said, referring to the attorney general Trump publicly criticized over his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. “Who knows where Gary stands in a couple months from now?”
A handful of White House officials and close advisers have tried to undercut Cohn for months, since his unsuccessful push to persuade Trump to stick with the Paris climate accord — when the nationalist news site Breitbart began labeling him “Globalist Gary,” a favorite epithet of then-chief White House strategist Steve Bannon.
Now, they’re seeking to take advantage of his fraying relationship with the president to cast Cohn as yet another top West Wing aide on this way out, in the wake of the departures of former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former press secretary Sean Spicer.
Bannon — himself the target of a similar ouster campaign, who’s now returned to his perch running Breitbart — told the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” in an interview airing Sunday, that Cohn should have left the White House after publicly disagreeing with the president’s response after the death of a counterprotester at a white supremacist march in Charlottesville last month. “If you’re going to break with him, resign,” Bannon told interviewer Charlie Rose. “If you find it unacceptable, you should resign.”
Cohn is very much aware of efforts by adversaries to trash him with whisper campaigns to the media and is frustrated by them, according to people familiar with his thinking. But as long as he can continue to focus on pushing tax reform through Congress, he is inclined to stay on the job.
New York friends say Cohn does not want to leave the Trump administration with nothing to show for his tenure. He’s aware that he may have killed his chances for Fed chair with critical comments after Charlottesville.
“People are making too much of this,” said one senior administration official about the president’s well-known frustrations with Cohn, director of the National Economic Council.
Cohn is not the first senior administration official to earn the president’s ire but remain on the payroll. Sessions and White House Counsel Donald McGahn have received flak from the president over the ongoing Russia investigations, among other snafus, yet they’ve stayed in their jobs.
Sessions’ fate looked particularly dicey after Trump criticized him in an interview with The New York Times, calling it “unfair” for Sessions to take his job running the Department of Justice only to later recuse himself from the Russia investigations. Multiple Republican senators and a raft of conservative groups sprang to Sessions’ defense — a life preserver that D.C. newbie Cohn, who’s also widely known to be a registered Democrat, does not have.
“Gary Cohn has no political constituency in Washington. He’s got some people working for him, but they don’t care about him as long as they’ve got a paycheck and a job,” said one person close to the administration. “He does not have a constituency and that is political isolation.”
The attacks on Cohn haven’t diminished his daily duties around the White House, his involvement in pushing for the administration’s next major policy push of tax reform, or even his mood. He’s continued to attend the Big Six tax negotiation meetings at the White House and on Capitol Hill, personally brief the president on tax reform, and fly with the president on Air Force One for his recent speech on tax reform in North Dakota.
A Cohn friend who spoke to him at a party in D.C. on Thursday night said he was “in a great mood” and “highflying” after the president cut a deal on Wednesday with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to raise the debt ceiling. Cohn has long advocated for the president to work more closely with Schumer, one New York source who knows both men said, since they’re both New Yorkers who aren’t fierce ideologues and like to make deals.
A second person who spoke to him this week said Cohn thought Trump’s deals with Schumer was among the most promising signs in months.
The president and Cohn’s relationship started to sour in late August after Cohn publicly criticized Trump in a Financial Times interview for the president’s wavering condemnation of white supremacists.
The president and Cohn spoke privately about Cohn’s displeasure in Bedminster, New Jersey, said one close adviser to the White House, and at the time, Cohn made it clear to the president that he would answer honestly, if asked, about his feelings about Charlottesville.
Cohn later shared these thoughts with the newspaper and publicly said that he had considered resigning in the aftermath of Charlottesville.
“This administration can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups and do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities,” Cohn said in the interview, published on Aug. 25.
Cohn’s reaction irritated the president and created distance between them. They haven’t spoken privately since then.
Cohn also made some disparaging remarks about the way the White House functions under the president to friends in the Hamptons in August that found their way back to Trump and further exacerbated their working relationship, said one adviser close to the administration. A person close to Cohn said the Hamptons incident was overblown.
“Gary could probably stand to be a little more careful about how and where he talks about the president,” one friend of Cohn’s in New York said. But they added that his complaints were mostly about the cutthroat nature of the White House and less about the president himself.
Privately, Cohn has expressed frustration to friends and associates about policy discussions in the White House, the president’s tweets and decision-making style, and the president’s tendency to repeatedly ask for policy moves that many experts and advisers deem impossible.
The latter move came to the forefront this week, as the president, White House’s legislative affairs director Marc Short and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin all insisted, on the president’s behalf, that the corporate tax rate fall to 15 percent under any potential tax legislation.
Meanwhile, the Big Six administration officials and congressional leaders negotiating a potential tax deal behind the scenes, have settled on a figure more within the range of 22 to 25 percent.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said during a media appearance on Thursday that tax negotiators believed the corporate rate would end up in the low to mid-20s, saying that it was hard to make the numbers work on the 15 percent rate that Trump sought.
One thing working in Cohn’s favor is that Trump has long bragged about his ability to attract the former Goldman Sachs president to his White House team. ”I’ve known Gary for a long time — but I’ve gained great respect for Gary working with him,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal in late July.
Firing or sidelining Cohn would also be tricky for Trump because the NEC director is a well-known quantity on Wall Street and rumors that he may be leaving tend to spook the stock market. Much of the confidence big investors have in the administration’s ability to deliver on tax reform hangs on Cohn’s continued presence in the West Wing — even if many conservative Republicans on the Hill are wary of Cohn’s political leanings and his expertise on wonky D.C. matters such as tax policy.
His abrupt departure could tank markets, at least temporarily.
“Wall Street views Cohn as one of, if not the only, known quantity in the West Wing,” said Isaac Boltansky, an analyst at Compass Point Research and Trading. “Investors have listened to him during quarterly earnings calls and conferences for years. Corporate America knows him because Goldman has been their banker. If Cohn leaves, I think the market will lose its last bit of optimism about substantive tax reform.”
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