This post has been updated.
President Trump will occasionally drop some public, not-so-veiled criticisms of his aides when they run afoul of him. And now one of his aides is doing it right back — in a pretty remarkable and unmistakable way.
Gary Cohn, Trump's chief economic adviser, has given an interview to the Financial Times in which he in no uncertain terms criticizes the Trump administration's response to the violence in Charlottesville at a white nationalist rally, which led to the death of a counterprotester and 19 injuries, after a car crashed into crowds. Trump has drawn criticism — including privately from his own aides — for insufficiently denouncing the white supremacists who organized the rally and suggesting they shared blame with others.
Cohn, who is Jewish, doesn't call out Trump by name, but it's crystal-clear what he is saying. A sampling:
- “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.”
- “I have come under enormous pressure both to resign and to remain in my current position. … 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.”
- “Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK.”
While Cohn never says, “The president got it wrong and needs to do better,” he might as well have. Nobody else in the Trump administration offered comments suggesting any kind of equivalence in blame between the white supremacists and the counterprotesters. It was Trump who referred to there being blame “on many sides” and then days later “on both sides.” Other members of the administration tried to argue that Trump had offered a more forceful denunciation of white supremacists and neo-Nazis when he had, in fact, not. (He would later do so, only to revert a day later to his former “many sides/both sides” comments.)
When Cohn says, “Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK,” he is clearly talking about Trump's “many sides/both sides” comments. There is no one else it could be about.
Cohn also basically suggests he would quit if this were just about Trump's comments, emphasizing that he feels it's his “duty” to continue. That's got to sting Trump.
“As a Jewish American, I will not allow neo-Nazis ranting ‘Jews will not replace us’ to cause this Jew to leave his job,” he says. “I feel deep empathy for all who have been targeted by these hate groups. We must all unite together against them.”
But Cohn wasn't really talking about neo-Nazis tempting him to quit; he was talking about the president doing that. And his comments amount to a pretty stunning rebuke of his boss.
We'll now see what his boss does about it, because we're in pretty uncharted territory here. Does Trump tolerate his own aides publicly chastising him in this manner? It's almost as if Cohn is daring Trump to fire him — a high-ranking Jewish adviser -- and relieve him of his own conflicted feelings about serving this president.