Gary Cohn, the not-so-secret Democrat in Trump’s White House, is gaining influence — and critics

Gary Cohn
National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn is reportedly on the short list to replace Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff. (Photo: Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — After weeks of infighting in the Trump White House, one adviser whose stock is clearly rising is the relatively little-known director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn — a registered Democrat who is widely regarded as one of the most liberal voices in the White House. A Trump ally told Yahoo News that Cohn has even earned a nickname among some administration officials and Capitol Hill Republicans: Globalist Gary.

According to news reports published on Friday, President Trump is considering replacing chief of staff Reince Priebus, and Cohn is on the short list. A source close to the White House says the push for a shakeup is coming from Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, and is motivated not by ideology but by frustration over the administration’s “lack of ability to execute crisply and to mount any momentum” for the president’s agenda. Kushner and Vice President Mike Pence “are trying to come up with names of people who know how to get things done in Washington,” the source said.

However, as usual, it’s difficult to make a clear forecast based on the rumblings in Trump’s White House, and some members of the inner circle are insisting that there will be no imminent shakeup. One source close to Kushner told Yahoo News that the rumors are completely “overstated.”

And while Cohn is in the mix if Priebus takes the fall for the White House dysfunction, the source who predicted a shakeup identified House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy as the leading candidate for the chief of staff job. McCarthy’s advantage, the source indicated, is his presumed ability to get bills through Congress. Along with Cohn and McCarthy, others on the short list are believed to be political consultant David Urban and longtime Republican fundraiser and lobbyist Wayne Berman, now a principal at the private equity giant Blackstone.

Whether or not Cohn is in line for Priebus’s job, his influence is clearly growing. As head of the NEC, Cohn coordinates the president’s economic policymaking process and oversees the advice given to the president in this arena. And his portfolio already seems to extend beyond economic policy. Photos released by the White House show that Cohn was in the room Thursday night as Trump launched airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria.

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

In the ongoing struggle for influence in the White House, Cohn has become a lightning rod for members of other factions in the president’s inner circle who fear he’s exercising a powerful liberal influence on the administration. Four different sources close to the president told Yahoo News that Cohn is the object of growing concern among Trump’s conservative allies — especially the populist nexus around chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Sam Nunberg, a conservative consultant who was an early adviser of Trump’s and remains well connected to the president’s inner circle, would say only one thing about Cohn: “Gary Cohn would be too liberal for the Obama administration. I don’t know what he’s doing in a Republican White House.”

Cohn came to the Trump administration from Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs, where he spent more than 25 years and rose to become the firm’s president and chief operating officer. During his banking career, Cohn was a proponent of free trade, lower foreign tariffs and a moderate immigration stance, views that are a far cry from the nationalist and populist agenda Trump espoused on the campaign trail last year. Cohn also has a lengthy history of political donations and has given more than $275,000 to Democrats and about $225,000 to Republicans. Cohn gave money to Trump’s election opponent, Hillary Clinton, during her 2008 presidential bid. He did not make a donation to Trump’s campaign last year.

Every White House has its divisions, driven by ambition, personalities and ideologies, but Trump’s has been unusually fractious, with infighting among not just two but three major factions. Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, heads up a cadre of establishment conservatives brought over from his prior job as chairman of the Republican National Committee. Bannon and his allies make up a nationalistic and populist wing. The third major sphere of influence is centered around Trump’s family and includes Cohn and another former Goldman executive, Dina Powell, a top adviser to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka. Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, are both on the White House staff and were widely credited with pushing the president to abandon an executive order that would have eroded protections for LGBT workers.

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Cohn’s party affiliation and past work in global markets worries both the establishment conservatives and the nationalists in the White House. One Republican consultant who in mid-March visited the White House recounted running into a Priebus ally who was storming, red-faced, out of a meeting where there had been disagreement with Cohn.

“We’re going to take him out,” the Priebus ally said. The Republican who spoke with the Priebus ally approved of the hostility toward Cohn. “He’s a Democrat,” he said.

One Trump confidant suggested that reining in Cohn’s influence is a top priority for conservatives in the White House.

“Look, I think on a one-to-10 scale … people who are trying to move a conservative agenda for the president are at a nine with their concerns on this guy,” the confidant said of Cohn, later adding, “He’s moving his own agenda, a globalist agenda, which has, you know, candidly, made him very wealthy.”

Cohn declined to comment for this story, and White House assistant press secretary Natalie Strom wouldn’t say much more than Trump himself did when he appointed Cohn, that the former banker would “use all of his vast knowledge and experience to make sure the American people start winning again.”

But the Trump confidant identified several areas where Cohn’s policies are viewed as being at odds with Trump’s platform.

“This guy does not want to build the wall. This guy does not care about tax reductions. This guy does not care about giving people in the middle class more of their earned income back. He cares about the global economy, and I mean that in the pejorative sense,” the confidant said.

And multiple people close to the president pointed to specific examples where Cohn’s liberal tendencies are being felt. A White House source called Cohn a “total free trading globalist.” The source cited Cohn’s appointment of Andrew Quinn to the National Economic Council as evidence that Cohn’s support of free trade is influencing the administration. Quinn was a negotiator of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that Trump voiced vehement opposition to on the campaign trail.

A source close to Cohn said that while he is in favor of free markets, like Trump he wants to be a tough negotiator and make strong foreign trade deals for America. Cohn’s staff is filled with veterans of the second Bush White House and Republican Capitol Hill offices.

Donald Trump
President Trump (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

But multiple Cohn critics said he was responsible for reports that the White House considered implementing a carbon tax or value-added tax, which are both strongly opposed by conservatives.

Soon after the reports surfaced, the White House said it would not consider those taxes on emissions and consumption. A White House official pointed to how quickly the administration backtracked as proof that they were never seriously considered. Still, according to the Trump confidant, even floating the idea of the taxes was an “absolute killer” from a messaging standpoint.

“Once you start recommending, or speaking about, or talking about a tax, a carbon tax, OK, you can’t unring that bell is the problem,” the Trump confidant said. “Candidly, the bad press that comes with that is devastating. That means coal miners are out of work, right? Which is everything that the president has been against.”

But the shifting political wars in the Trump White House make for some strange bedfellows. On Thursday, Bloomberg reported that Cohn indicated he supports splitting Wall Street’s consumer lending businesses from their investment arms, a policy that was originally implemented in the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which was repealed in 1999. Liberals including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are among those also pushing to reinstate a version of Glass-Steagall. The White House source noted that Cohn’s call to break up the banks echoes some of Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric and said that the populists in the president’s inner circle were pleased; they saw it as evidence that Cohn is “caving” to their desire to rein in the big banks.

Cohn’s former employer Goldman Sachs would not be among the banks most seriously affected by a revived Glass-Steagall; it has always been primarily an investment bank with a relatively small commercial-banking footprint.

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His star is rising at a significant juncture, when Trump, according to one White House adviser, has grown frustrated with the ongoing power struggle between Kushner and Bannon. Thursday night, in Mar-a-Lago, Trump called the two of them, the adviser said, and ordered them to work out their differences. “I don’t want to hear anything more about this,” the president said, referring to the feuding between them. A Priebus ally said the rumors that the chief of staff’s job is in danger are “ridiculous.” This person credited Priebus with arranging the sit-down.

“Ironically, it’s Reince that has brokered peace between Jared and Bannon. Getting them to agree to focus on a united agenda. Very positive meeting he had with the two of them this afternoon,” the Priebus ally said.

A White House source said the meeting between Bannon and Kushner “went very well.”

“All parties agreed to work on implementing the agenda,” the source said.

Sources close to Cohn describe him as strenuously staying out of the internecine disputes and remaining above the fray. This avoidance of infighting may be helping him curry favor with the president, who is said to be tired of the feuding. But the most important factor behind Cohn’s rise may be his relationship with Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who reportedly brought him on board. They did not respond to requests to comment on this story, but multiple sources describe them as the most influential members of the president’s inner circle.

A former transition official said that Cohn’s influence has grown thanks to the support of “moderating voices” in the White House, including Kushner.

“Everybody who wants to sort of modulate and moderate the president sees Gary as the best conduit to do that because he makes no apologies for who he is, and that’s a Goldman Sachs liberal Democrat from New York,” the former transition official said.

It also helps that Cohn is believed to have Dina Powell, who is close to Ivanka Trump, in his corner. In a text-message exchange with Yahoo News, Powell emphasized her Republican roots, her work in the second Bush White House and praise that conservatives gave her appointment. She also rejected the notion that Cohn is a liberal influence and called it “totally wrong.”

“Ironically, he is more conservative than others,” she said.

From left, Jared Kushner, Gary Cohn, Ivanka Trump, and Dina Powell. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
From left, Jared Kushner, Gary Cohn, Ivanka Trump, and Dina Powell. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Additional reporting by Michael Isikoff and Jon Ward.

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