President Trump on Tuesday appeared at a CEO town hall. He was among New York friends, with many rich developers in attendance. He was unusually relaxed and coherent, largely because he was talking about something he actually understood — building permits and regulations. He told the crowd that “getting a building approved in New York is a horrible, horrible thing. And that’s nothing compared to when you get into the highways and the dams.”
He’s right. The approval process for infrastructure has been something that chief executives of major corporations, including GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt, have talked about. Rather than the blind slashing of regulations, there should be a concerted effort to streamline and rationalize them.
Things got especially interesting at the town hall when Trump beckoned Gary Cohn, his director of the National Economic Council, to the stage with a large visual aid, a tall chart showing the ridiculously cumbersome approval process for a highway. The exchange with Cohn went like this:
TRUMP: But you start up here [pointing to the top of the chart] and this is anywhere from a 10-to-20-year process. You have — is it 17 agencies. You have hundreds and hundreds of permits. Many of them are statutory, where you can’t even apply for the second permit until six months go by. So this is to build a highway. This is a simple highway. And these are the agencies — so it’s 17 agencies. How many different steps is it?
COHN: Sixteen different approvals.
COHN: Twenty-nine different statutes. Five different executive orders that all apply to this process. This is indicative, so this is not a specific project, but this is the type of process that a government — this is a state government — would have to go through to permit a highway federally. This is just federal, not state regulations.
TRUMP: So it can take anywhere from 10 — if you’re really good, 10 years to 20 years. And then they vote, and you lose. They don’t want it. (Laughter.) And it costs sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars just to go through the process.
Thank you very much. That was a great job you did. Be careful, don’t fall. I don’t want to have you fall. You’ll be a big story in the paper if you go down. (Laughter.)
Trump recalled that Cohn walked into the Oval Office with the prop the day before. Cohn plainly understood that Trump is a visual person (he doesn’t read, it has been wildly reported). He not only pleased his boss in delivering the chart but also gave the president a hook for discussing a genuinely important issue: how to speed up the time for infrastructure construction, which in turn can help bolster productivity.
Episodes such as this one suggest that Cohn, someone who earns the president’s respect (he’s the former chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs and worth a reported $600 million, you see) arguably is the most mature, sensible figure on the White House staff. He also has been a moderating voice on trade and other economic issues. Unlike the Luddite nationalists in the Stephen K. Bannon orbit, Cohn understands that globalism is here to stay (“We have successfully globalized the world, whether we like that or not”). At 56 years old, he speaks and looks like a grown-up, with an air of confidence.
Trump cannot be pleased as he watches the Bannon-v.-Kushner slugfest play out in public. If Trump wants to clean house and dump Bannon and the ineffective Reince Priebus, he would do well to install Cohn as chief of staff. He gets along with Jared Kushner, presents a reassuring figure and seems to “get” Trump. Most important, Cohn might be the adult in the room Trump so badly needs.