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WASHINGTON — Top White House officials insisted that the president’s top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, is staying in the administration and eager to work on tax reform after he sharply criticized President Trump’s response to the recent violence in Charlottesville, Va., in an interview that was published in the Financial Times on Thursday. In that interview, Cohn said he needed to express his “distress” and maintained Trump “can and must to better” to denounce hate groups.
At her briefing with reporters on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders argued there was undue attention on the “small portion” of the interview concerning Charlottesville.
“Everyone wants to focus on a small part of that interview. Ninety-five percent of that interview was on tax reform and you’re looking at a very small portion of it,” Sanders said.
In the coming weeks, Trump intends to focus on tax reform and Cohn will play a big role in that push.
Sanders also suggested the president wasn’t blindsided by Cohn’s interview. “The president and Gary have spoken many times. Gary has not held back what his feelings are,” she said. “Gary has not held back how he feels about this situation, and he’s been very open and honest, and so I don’t think that anyone was surprised.”
Ever since the “Unite the Right” march by neo-Nazis and Klan sympathizers in Charlottesville, which resulted in the death of a counterprotester, the president’s sometimes equivocal responses have been criticized, even by some of his allies. So many members of Trump’s business advisory councils quit in protest that he dissolved the panels.
Cohn, who is reportedly interested in becoming chairman of the Federal Reserve, is one of the highest-ranking Jewish members of Trump’s administration. There was widespread interest in how Jews and other minorities in the White House felt about Trump’s remark that people on “both sides” were responsible for the violence. Trump also said there were “fine people” among the white supremacists and neo-Nazis and suggested they had legitimate concerns about the removal of Confederate monuments.
Cohn was standing behind Trump at that press conference and did not respond to a question from Yahoo News about whether he was concerned about members of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups who support Trump.
In his interview with the Financial Times, Cohn strongly rejected Trump’s remarks.
“Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK,” Cohn said. “I believe 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.”
Cohn also told the newspaper he had discussed his concerns with the president. The New York Times subsequently reported that Cohn seriously considered resigning amid pressure from his family and former colleagues in the business world. According to the Times, Cohn, who was an executive at Goldman Sachs prior to joining the Trump administration, went so far as to draft a letter of resignation. In his Financial Times interview, Cohn suggested he decided not to resign because he is a ”patriotic American.”
Cohn also cast his decision as a courageous defiance of the marchers.
“As a Jewish-American, I will not allow neo-Nazis ranting ‘Jews will not replace us’ to cause this Jew to leave his job,” said Cohn, referencing a chant that was widely used in Charlottesville.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, another Jewish member of the administration and a former colleague of Cohn at Goldman Sachs, also appeared at the Thursday briefing to discuss sanctions against the Venezuelan government. Mnuchin, who previously released a statement defending Trump’s response to Charlottesville, said he has no doubt the president is firmly opposed to hate groups and that he never considered leaving his job.
“Under no circumstances was I going to resign,” Mnuchin said.
Like Sanders, Mnuchin also suggested Cohn is now focused on tax reform.
“Gary and I have known each other for 20 years. I can tell you I’m speaking to him every day. His No. 1 focus is absolutely working on tax reform with me and getting tax reform done,” said Mnuchin. “Gary’s committed to be here and couldn’t be more excited about that.”
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