Top economic adviser Gary Cohn leaves White House in wake of tariff rift

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WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 13: (L-R) U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN), Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), and Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn listen during a meeting between President Donald Trump and congressional members in the Cabinet Room of the White House February 13, 2018 in Washington, DC. President Trump held a meeting with congressional members to discuss trade. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Cohn, who had once been rumored as a potential next chief of staff, will leave the White House in the wake of his fierce disagreement with the President’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Cohn is expected to leave in the coming weeks, the White House said.

“Gary has been my chief economic adviser and did a superb job in driving our agenda, helping to deliver historic tax cuts and reforms and unleashing the American economy once again. He is a rare talent, and I thank him for his dedicated service to the American people,” Trump said in a statement.

The New York Times first reported the news.

Cohn’s position with Trump has been tenuous and uncertain since last summer when he spoke out against the President’s comments on Charlottesville. While they smoothed over their relationship during tax reform, it “was never the same,” a person close to the matter says.

As recently as last week, Cohn was still thinking he could hold on — and wanted to, this person says — but losing the tariff fight made clear that it was time to leave, the person said.

“Trade was the last straw,” the same person said.

The President became angry at Cohn’s efforts to soften trade and made that clear in the last 24-48 hours.

Cohn’s departure will leave Trump without a key member of his administration — one largely credited with helping to get tax reform passed in Congress — but also a chief antagonist to the President’s views on trade issues.

Trump was surprised to learn that Cohn was working to arrange a meeting with representatives from the auto and bottling industries in an effort to demonstrate the effects the steel and aluminum tariffs would have, a person familiar with the situation said.

The President has said he’s not interested in such a meeting, and has grown angry at what he sees as attempts to deter him from the plan. Trump has spoken disparagingly of “globalists” during internal conversations over the past week, the person said.

Disputes over trade, Charlottesville

For months, Cohn led the internal opposition to Trump’s protectionist interests, working to rein in Trump’s desire to slap steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. But his campaign fell apart last week when Trump sidestepped Cohn and announced his plans to impose the tariffs during a hastily arranged meeting with US steel and aluminum executives.

Just weeks earlier, Cohn was rumored as a potential successor to White House chief of staff John Kelly — a remarkable turnaround in the Trump-Cohn relationship. it nearly fell apart last summer after Cohn offered a thinly veiled public rebuke of the President’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Cohn said then that the administration “can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning” hate groups after Trump blamed both white supremacists and counter-protesters for Charlottesville and said there were “some very fine people” among those protesting alongside white supremacists.

At the time, Cohn acknowledged in an interview with the Financial Times the pressure he faced to resign amid Trump’s comments, but said he had decided to stay.

For weeks after that rebuke, Trump privately fumed about Cohn to advisers inside and outside the White House, with sources signaling that Cohn was only remaining on because of his critical role on tax reform.

But the passage of tax reform would not be Cohn’s final act in the White House, remaining on board for more than two months, with his allies saying he hoped to continue to counteract Trump’s protectionist trade instincts.

Cohn was once in consideration to be the next Federal Reserve chairman, but Trump’s anger at Cohn over his rebuke last summer took him out of consideration, CNN reported then.

The questions about Cohn’s status inside the West Wing returned in the last week after Trump announced his plans to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. That suspicion was furthered on Tuesday — hours before the White House announced his plans to resign — when Cohn was absent from a joint news conference the President was holding at the White House.