In the past two weeks, Gary Cohn has somehow become the nation’s first chief rabbi. His official title is director of the president’s National Economic Council, but that has been overshadowed by Cohn’s new status as the Trump administration’s most controversial Jew. The question of whether he should quit over President Trump’s remarks about the recent unrest in Charlottesville or remain as sort of a White House hall monitor has become a late-August meme. Cohn’s problem is that he’s the proverbial one-eyed man in the valley of the blind.
So when the president blamed “both sides” for a white-supremacist rally that resulted in the death of a counterprotester, heads turned toward Cohn, who stood behind Trump at his news conference: How would he react? At first, he did not, and the critics pounced. Here, they said, was a Jew who remained mum while the president engaged in odious moral equivalency — both the neo-Nazis and the counterdemonstrators were equally at fault, Trump suggested — and later the president claimed there were “very fine people” in both camps. A “very fine” Nazi is a chilling thought.
For a time, attention was also focused on Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, who is also Jewish. But he was an early Trump backer, someone so blind or indifferent to the president’s heroic faults and so ridiculously voluble in praise of him that he has a kind of political dementia. In the media, he has essentially been granted a plea of insanity. That left Cohn sort of standing alone and being implored to speak out.
I can see why the demand was made. But why wasn’t it made of others? The Charlottesville goons were mostly animated by racism. Yet the demand for Trump’s black appointees to criticize the president was so muted it could hardly be heard. And what about the rest of Trump’s team? Each one of them had an obligation to criticize a president who couldn’t tell a neo-Nazi march from one by the Lions Club. Why Cohn?
The answer was written on Cohn’s face. As the president waxed idiotic, Cohn seemed pained. Had he adopted a game face, he might have been given a pass. But the media jumped on the optics — and, of course, his reputation as a reasonable man and a registered Democrat. Finally, Cohn told the Financial Times how he felt: “Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the KKK.” He added that Trump “can and must do better” on condemning hate groups.
Still, the call went out for Cohn to resign for moral reasons. He was denounced as a “court Jew,” a choice bit of opprobrium on the moral level of “Uncle Tom.” He was reported to be considering quitting. Friends emailed. Stay. Go.
And stay he should — for now. He is the necessary man in the president’s inner circle. It’s true that his influence may be curtailed now that he has criticized the president, but it is not true that the recent purge of White House hyper-nationalists means that Cohn is less essential. Stephen K. Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and, in prehistory, Michael Flynn can always reach Trump on the phone or through such outlets as Fox News and Breitbart. They lost proximity but not influence. They still cook in the kitchen cabinet.
In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations who has served under four presidents, outlined reasons for Cohn to stay or go. Stay if he thinks he’s having “a real impact,” but go if he “can’t live with where the president comes out on a big issue,” or because “there is a pattern of decision-making you can’t agree with.” In a follow-up with me, Haass added a third: “Am I comfortable representing the president’s policies?”
In talking with other former officials, I found no unanimity on whether Cohn should remain or leave. If Trump were not such a reckless president, the choice would be easy. But if there is a chance to restrain his behavior, to temper his temper, to nudge him toward moderation, then staying is the right choice. One critic of Cohn pointed me to the Mishna, the ancient Jewish commentary in which the sage Hillel says, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” Yes, I understand. But for now, being a rare man in the White House is perhaps better for all of us than being just another man outside.
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