Gary Cohn, the White House’s top economic adviser, announced Tuesday that he was leaving the administration amid a major internal clash over President Trump’s sharp and sudden pivot toward protectionist trade policies.
The departure of Cohn, a former president of Goldman Sachs who had been an interlocutor between the Trump administration and the business community, is the latest jolt to a White House that has been especially tumultuous in recent weeks and unable to retain some of its top talent.
His resignation as National Economic Council director will leave the White House without a financial heavyweight who business executives and foreign leaders believed had served as a counter to Trump’s protectionist impulses and as a moderating force in other areas.
The markets opened sharply downward as it finally hit investors: Trump is hellbent on starting a trade war, and the most reasonable adviser won’t be around to soften the blow. The trials of Cohn, who decided to stick with the president (for the sake of tax reform) after Trump’s disastrous remarks about neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, should dispel some of the self-delusions with which Trump enablers have been trying to soothe themselves — and us.
First, whatever information-process, rules-of-access and paper-flow controls that his staff can devise, they do not take the place of a disciplined, knowledgeable and temperamentally sound president. (“At the center of the West Wing drama has been a president who aides say is not easily controlled and whose dark moods of late have manifested themselves in private fits of rage as well as policy gyrations.”) We should once and for all do away with the notion that chief of staff John Kelly has fine-tuned the White House. There has been more turmoil, staff turnover and scandals under his watch than under Reince Priebus.
Second, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and other fiscal conservatives never came to terms with the conflict between their brand of supply-side economics (including deregulation, corporate tax cuts) and Trump’s populist economic views (bigger government, protectionism, immigration exclusion). To the extent that the GOP was counting on the former to usher in an era of GDP growth and rising wages, it must now recognize that the latter (e.g. populism) will undermine their ambitious goals.
Third, Congress remains pathetically timid. Ryan’s idea of a solution is to persuade Trump to narrow tariffs to “just” China. The notion that Congress might actually take back the power to impose tariffs seems too frightening for Republicans to contemplate. Once again, we see that our system of checks and balances falters when Republicans consistently put partisan loyalty over their obligations to the country.
Fourth, as much faith as the public might have in Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, he’s not a miracle worker and can’t put out every fire that Trump sets. The Post reports, “Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson privately warned senior trade officials on Tuesday that President Trump’s proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum could endanger the U.S. national security relationship with allies, according to five people familiar with the meeting.” It is not clear whether they got a hearing directly with the president, but in any event, they cannot make up for the intellectual deficits and temperamental weakness of the commander in chief.
Fifth, if Trump is this irrational and impervious to reason on a matter such as trade, we should not expect in the midst of a national security crisis for him to act with any greater sobriety or restraint. We have been extremely fortunate not to have yet faced an international crisis not of our own making — e.g. a new war in the Middle East, Russian aggression in the Baltic states, a North Korean missile hitting an ally in the region. If and when that comes, Trump — just as he did on trade — may decide to take the counsel of cranks, not of sound and sensible advisers.
In other words, Cohn reminds us that in picking an utterly unfit president, the voters have put the country at risk. Well-meaning men and women can try to cajole him or refocus him, but so long as Trump is president, the risk for serious blunders remains. It’s why it should be in all of our interests to limit his discretion (e.g. Congress should reassert itself in trade) and to make his tenure as short as possible.