Cohn, who is Jewish, is the director of the White House National Economic Council and a former president of Goldman Sachs. He had been described last week by confidants as deeply anguished and angry over Trump’s equivocal responses to the Charlottesville violence.
“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 an interview with the Financial Times.
Cohn’s comments make clear that, as The Washington Post reported last week, he was advised by some friends to resign and others urged him to stay. The White House on Thursday took the unusual step of saying that Cohn would not resign, trying to contain the political fallout.
But Cohn has made his displeasure with Trump clear. In the Financial Times interview, he says he has spoken with the president directly about the issue.
“I have come under enormous pressure both to resign and to remain in my current position,” Cohn told the Financial Times. “I … feel compelled to voice my distress over the last two weeks.”
He went on to tell the Financial Times, “As a patriotic American, I am reluctant to leave my post … because I feel a duty to fulfill my commitment to work on behalf of the American people. But I also feel compelled to voice my distress over the events of the last two weeks.”
Cohn’s comments are extraordinary because few senior White House officials have ever publicly condemned comments made by the president. And few — if any — White House officials have publicly acknowledged they considered resigning because of displeasure with Trump’s words or actions.
There have been many White House departures in the past seven months, but they were mostly because people were shamed or forced out of office during turf battles, among others things.
Cohn’s public stand contrasts sharply with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — who is also Jewish — and who defended Trump’s comments after the violence in Charlottesville. Mnuchin said Trump condemned the hate groups, but Cohn made clear he was very unsettled.
Trump’s comments also led to the quick dissolution of two groups of prominent corporate advisers, many of whom felt they could no longer be associated with a president who didn’t rapidly and unequivocally condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Trump has made clear that he values loyalty above most anything else, and Cohn’s comments come at a pivotal point. Trump is considering whether to nominate Cohn as chairman of the Federal Reserve, which would make him the world’s most powerful central banker. Cohn has extensive experience with financial markets and has worked with international central bankers, but it would be very unusual to nominate someone as Fed chairman who is not an economist.
Cohn is one of Trump’s closest advisers and is responsible for trying to shepherd the White House’s entire economic policy platform — tax cuts, infrastructure spending, health-care changes — into law. He is also working on efforts to roll back regulations.
So far, Cohn and his team have had mixed success, but if Cohn were to resign, or if Trump were to dismiss him, it would be seen as a major rupture in the White House’s efforts to pass its agenda.