The White House, where everyone is clamoring to work - at least according to Trump - took yet another blow last week when Gary Cohn, the president’s top economic advisor, announced his resignation from the administration.
Cohn, the Director of the National Economic Council, was always something of an odd choice in an administration of self-proclaimed populist firebrands. His former position as the Chairman of Goldman Sachs and opposition to some of President Trump’s more radical economic and foreign policy rhetoric left him at permanent odds with the likes of former chief strategist Stephen Bannon - so much so that the grossly anti-Semetic nickname “Globalist Gary” purportedly followed Cohn throughout his tenure in the administration. (The irony of Bannon, himself a former investment banker, perpetuating such a nasty epithet is as staggering as it is unsurprising.)
Still, despite ideological conflict on the side, there was enough overlap between Cohn and the more ‘conventional’ camps of the Trump Administration to ensure a happy partnership for some time. It is no secret that President Trump salivates over the approval of the rich, by whom he desperately wants to be seen as a peer. And of course, Cohn was more than happy to play his role in advocating for the Trump tax plan - an entirely GOP-orthodox piece of legislation, driven by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, that delivered on none of the campaign’s populist promises and has proven to be a magnificent boon to massive corporations and the ultra-wealthy.
Alas, all honeymoons must end. Cohn’s departure purportedly came as a result of his general disagreement with President Trump’s recent infatuation with the idea of provoking a trade war. As a candidate, Trump enraged his base with dark depictions of the state of the American economy and enthralled them by painting a picture of how wrongs would be righted by demonstrating a nonspecific toughness on the world stage. Yet despite repeated attempts by White House staff to explain to the president that trade deficits do not function like balance sheets, President Trump seems intent on putting his uninformed belligerence into action; he has taken to Twitter several times in the past week to argue that deliberately provoking other countries with hostile tariffs on steel and aluminum is, in fact, a good thing.
To be clear, Cohn is absolutely right to resign from an administration where he has an irreconcilable difference with the president in his core policy area. And though it needs no clarification, the kinds of tariffs (and resultant trade wars) President Trump is advocating for are indeed bad - they engender escalating and retaliatory action from other countries, pass the rising costs of goods on to American consumers, and could lead to broader economic consequences like bigger job losses in related sectors.
Gary Cohn’s problem, however, is that his moment for principled resignation from the Trump Administration passed many months ago.
After white nationalist demonstrators raged against American pluralism and ultimately killed a peaceful counterprotestor in Charlottesville, Virginia last fall, President Trump botched what should have been a moment of national unity. He failed to unequivocally condemn the far right elements that has caused the crisis, stumbling through a series of half-baked statements, contradictions, and pontifications on how there were “very fine people on both sides” - including the side with the Klansmen, the Nazis, and the murderer of Heather Heyer.
Many administration officials were dismayed at the president’s handling of the whole ordeal. Cohn gave an interview in which he claimed to have tangled with his feelings on the whole thing for a full week, and admitted even having penned a letter of resignation. Unfortunately, in the end, all he did was stay and bemoan that his boss would have to “do better.”
So as Republicans in Congress and conservative commentators rally against President Trump’s ambitiously poor trade policy, let’s not forget what they failed to stand up to in the past. Aside from a few notable exceptions, people like Gary Cohn were - aside from tepid hand wringing - essentially fine with a whole host of despicable behavior from President Trump. And that includes not just equivocations on neo-Nazis, but also racist remarks, attacks on immigrants, insults to allies and praise of authoritarians abroad, disdain for oversight, disregard for corruption, and bragging about sexual assault on tape.
In short, a principled stand now is no principled stand at all - but it is always illuminating to see where the priorities of others truly lie.
Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at firstname.lastname@example.org.