National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn announced his resignation today making him the latest high-profile departure from the White House in recent weeks. Officials insisted there was no single cause for the departure, but speculation is that it is fallout from an intra-White-House battle over steel and aluminum tariffs the President announced last week. Cohn was said to be a strong opponent of the measures.
Trump’s announcement of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports last week roiled markets and drew harsh criticism from foreign governments, corporations and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The President however remains undeterred.
“If you don’t have steel, you don’t have a country,” the President has said repeatedly since his announcement.
The U.S. Commerce Department issued a report that found that the “quantities and circumstances of steel and aluminum imports threaten to impair the national security.” That report was released on February 16.
Less than two weeks later, to the surprise of many, the President decided he would announce the tariffs, reportedly giving aides less than 24 hours to plan an event with executives from the steel and aluminum industries, where he would make the announcement. Notably, at that event, he had no policy directive to sign as administration officials said they would much more time – as long as weeks – to craft concrete action that can be put into practice.
In the weeks leading up to the announcement however, a fierce battle was taking place within the White House among top advisers on the issue. Cohn, along with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis, advocated against such policies while, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and others like U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer argued strongly for them.
In the end, the protectionist views won, and Trump announced the sanctions. “Our Steel and Aluminum industries (and many others) have been decimated by decades of unfair trade and bad policy with countries from around the world. We must not let our country, companies and workers be taken advantage of any longer. We want free, fair and SMART TRADE!” the President wrote on Twitter the morning of the announcement.
The decision may have been the final straw for Cohn who has had a significant fallout with President before.
Last year protests turned violent in Charlottesville, Virginia, after groups aligned with the Alternative Right protested the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a park. Those groups clashed with anti-protestors in favor of the statue’s removal. One person was killed and nineteen were injured. Additionally, two Virginia state patrol troopers were killed in a helicopter crash while assisting with the situation.
President Trump in commenting on Charlottesville afterward would say, “I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either. … But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
Critics attacked the President for seeming to draw moral equivalence between the two.
Cohn was one of those critics. In comments he made in public, he said, “Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK. I believe this administration can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups.”
He reportedly felt so strongly that he drafted a resignation later. But he never submitted it. For that, Cohn drew a fair amount of criticism of his own.
That criticism went like this: if Cohn felt so strongly about it, he should have resigned. Otherwise, he should not have made his split with the President so public.
“You can tell him, ‘Hey, maybe you can do it a better way.’ But if you’re gonna break, then resign. If you’re going to break with him, resign,” one-time top White House Adviser Steve Bannon would say of Cohn and his comments on Charlottesville.
“The stuff that was leaked out that week by certain members of the White House I thought was unacceptable. If you find it unacceptable, you should resign,” he added.
The relationship between Trump and Cohn was never the same.
The President however seems to be taking the high road in the wake of Cohn’s resignation. In a statement the President said, “Gary has been my chief economic adviser and did a superb job in driving our agenda, helping to deliver historic tax cuts and reforms and unleashing the American economy once again. He is a rare talent, and I thank him for his dedicated service to the American people.”
By late tonight, it seemed the President was already thinking about Cohn’s replacement. “Will be making a decision soon on the appointment of new Chief Economic Advisor. Many people wanting the job – will choose wisely!” he wrote on Twitter.