Gary Cohn's colossal misreading of Donald Trump

CNN Opinions 2 days ago
President Trump's former economic adviser Gary Cohn sounds the alarm about the atmosphere in the White House and worries whether there is anyone around Trump who will tell him what he doesn't want to hear.

Gary Cohn is a Democrat and a robust supporter of trade, immigration and climate action. So why did he go to work for a president who pitched his candidacy in ferocious opposition to all three?

"I thought that I could potentially sway him," the Wall Street veteran told me on the latest episode of my podcast, "The Axe Files."

Cohn said his decision to accept Donald Trump's invitation to become director of the National Economic Council was rooted in his faith that "fact-based" reason would prevail.

    "In my mind, having a seat on the inside and trying to influence was better than being on the outside and trying to get to a more positive outcome on, you know, climate, on trade, on immigration."

    Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs executive, did align with Trump on deregulation and tax reform, and helped orchestrate the controversial tax cut bill of 2017 that Trump claims as a principal achievement.

    But on other issues the two clashed, with Cohn quitting in protest in 2018 after the President imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from China and other countries.

    Listening to Cohn describe how he and a cadre of now-departed advisers tried to steer Trump away from his worst impulses and key positions, I had two reactions:

    One was that there is no one left in the White House to push back, a fear Cohn echoed in our conversation.

    "There was a group that was willing to tell the President what he needed to know, whether he wanted to hear it or not ... None of us are there anymore," he told me. "So I am concerned that the that the atmosphere in the White House is no longer conducive -- or no one has the personality -- to stand up and tell the President what he doesn't want to hear."

    Cohn's hope that Trump, like past presidents, would be willing to moderate some of his positions in light of facts and governing realities was a colossal misreading of the man, and reflected hubris and wishful establishment thinking.

    Trump's refusal to yield to his advisers and abandon his vivid, signature positions has a lot to do with why he retains the fierce loyalty of his base, even in the face of impeachment and the chaos that reigns around him. Trump's approval rating has held steady and remained in the low 40s throughout the impeachment inquiry.

      His unwillingness to be "swayed" on trade, immigration and climate and an array of social issues -- or to curb his smash-mouth politics -- may alarm his opposition. But to his loyal supporters, they are emblems of authenticity upon which Trump will stake his claim in 2020.

      It is a base only, base always strategy, risky in a country that grows more diverse and metropolitan by the day. But Trump is gambling that in the older, whiter, less-educated industrial states that matter -- Pennsylvania, Michigan and, particularly, Wisconsin -- he can replicate his 2016 formula and eke out another victory.

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