WASHINGTON — Gary Cohn, President Donald Trump’s top economic adviser, resigned Tuesday after a dispute with the president over tariffs.
The departure — following reports that Cohn, the National Economic Council director, had opposed Trump’s plan for large tariffs on imported steel and aluminum — was the latest in a string of exits by top officials in the administration.
Cohn, a wealthy former Goldman Sachs banker, played a key role on the president’s tax cut bill. Trump praised Cohn in a statement Tuesday as a “rare talent” who had done a “superb job in driving our agenda, helping to deliver historic tax cuts and reforms, and unleashing the American economy once again.”
Later Tuesday, he tweeted that he would be “making a decision soon on the appointment of new Chief Economic Advisor. Many people wanting the job – will choose wisely!”
But Trump’s tariff announcement last week was driven in large part by anger at senior staffers, with an increasingly isolated president feeling frustrated that, in his view, top advisers such as Cohn were slow-walking the his plan.
A source close to Cohn said the decision to resign was abrupt and entirely due to irreconcilable differences based on Trump’s tariff plan.
Notably missing from the East Room: Gary Cohn. pic.twitter.com/Jz5XnKWIfm
— Hallie Jackson (@HallieJackson) March 6, 2018
At a news conference at the White House Tuesday, which Cohn skipped, the president reaffirmed his support for tariffs.
In the White House, Cohn was considered close to the “New York” crowd consisting of recently departed senior adviser Dina Powell, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka, and seemed to find his footing in late fall as tax legislation moved towards completion. At that point, Cohn seemed well within the inner circle, even traveling with Trump to Camp David, where he was publicly embraced by the president in a move that seemed to crown Cohn as ascendant in a besieged White House.
But overall, his tenure in the administration was a tumultuous one. Last summer, Cohn spent days mulling resignation over his disappointment in Trump’s handling of the racist and deadly violence during a protest in Charlottesville. He decided to stay, hoping to be named the next Federal Reserve chairman — but Trump passed him over for the job, amid speculation that Cohn’s reaction to Charlottesville had failed to meet the president’s expectations for loyalty.
Cohn had been trying to lead the president’s infrastructure initiative since January, but the effort was constantly sidelined as other crises emerged, from the stalemate over DACA to the school shooting in Florida.
Frustrated about the limits of his current job as an adviser, Cohn spoke to the president and chief of staff John Kelly about his desire for a Cabinet-level role in the administration, making it clear that he wanted to be considered for either State Department or CIA should either open up, according to one official close to Cohn.
Kelly agreed, according to the official, telling Trump that Cohn needed “a bigger job.” (One of the big jobs Cohn was reportedly considered a candidate for, as recently as a few weeks ago: Kelly’s own.)
But over the last six days, following Trump’s surprise move on tariffs, a source familiar with the dynamic said the relationship between Cohn and Trump quickly became strained.
A senior administration official — who said Cohn was particularly frustrated with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and White House trade director Peter Navarro — expressed bafflement that Cohn had been so public in his frustration with the tariff policy, despite knowing the fight was not winnable.
Another person close to Cohn said the tariff issue made it clear to him that he no longer had the president’s ear on economic issues — though it was the chaotic process surrounding its emergence that proved the last straw.
Earlier Tuesday, with Trump doubling down on tariffs, there was no indication that a meeting Cohn had been trying to arrange with companies adversely impacted by the new policy would actually take place, according to multiple sources briefed by Trump’s National Economic Council.
Beyond industry, Cohn’s departure is also likely to disappoint U.S. allies. In recent days, he had worked to assure them that the tariffs had not yet been set in stone, and that their concerns would be taken into consideration. His exit also poses a challenge for Hill Republicans who had been relying on him as the key administration voice working to dissuade Trump from the idea of broad-based tariffs.
The president is expected to make his final tariff decision before the end of the week as he heads to Pennsylvania to campaign for the GOP candidate in the special election to fill an open congressional seat.