Key Trump staffer was on the brink of resigning after Charlottesville response

Story highlights

  • Gary Cohn is the director of the National Economic Council and a high-profile Jewish member of the White House
  • In an interview, he said the Trump administration "can and must do better" condemning hate groups

(CNN)Gary Cohn, the National Economic Council director, was on the brink of resigning after President Donald Trump's freewheeling press conference earlier this month in which he likened white supremacists to counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The moment laid bare uneasy rifts in the White House between Trump's nationalist backers -- including Steve Bannon, who was forced out days later -- and more liberal advisers such as Cohn.
However, a number of embattled administration officials have toyed with the idea of departing the administration amid the chaotic first months of the Trump presidency. Often, they find a compelling reason to stay.
    In Cohn's case, people familiar with the situation say he's made no secret of the fact that he's vying to become the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. The potential to land such a prominent position might have been a factor in his decision to stay, they say.
    Another source close to Cohn cautioned that while Cohn was very upset, he didn't seriously consider resigning.
    In a candid interview with the Financial Times conducted Thursday, Cohn, a high-profile Jewish member of the administration and former Goldman Sachs executive, said Trump's handling of the Charlottesville violence and protests caused him "distress." He said the administration "can and must do better" to condemn hate groups.
    The White House hasn't commented on whether Cohn was granted permission to do the Financial Times interview. The administration also wouldn't respond to questions about whether Cohn drafted a resignation letter, as reported by The New York Times.
    Asked Friday whether Trump was aware of what Cohn said, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders answered: "I don't think anyone was surprised about the comments."
    In the President's initial response to the protests and accompanying violence, Trump condemned violence "on many sides," drawing immediate backlash. Cohn did not specifically mention Trump's statement in the Financial Times interview, but he criticized the administration's response as a whole.
    "Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK. 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. As a Jewish American, I will not allow neo-Nazis ranting 'Jews will not replace us' to cause this Jew to leave his job," he said.
    Cohn said that, despite pressure, he would not leave his White House role.
    "I am reluctant to leave my post as director of the National Economic Council because I feel a duty to fulfill my commitment to work on behalf of the American people. But I also feel compelled to voice my distress over the events of the last two weeks," he told the newspaper.
    Cohn indicated there is pressure among his colleagues to speak out on Charlottesville.
    "This is a personal issue for each of us. We are all grappling with it. This takes time to grapple with," he said.
    Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin issued a statement earlier this month condemning the actions of hate groups and voicing support for the President. On Friday, Mnuchin said there's "no question that the President was not equating the hate groups with people who were (protesting) peacefully."
    Mnuchin also said he and Cohn were focused on remaining in the administration and pushing tax reform forward.
    "I can tell you I am speaking to (Cohn) every day," Mnuchin told reporters at the White House. "His No. 1 focus is absolutely working on tax reform with me and getting tax reform done."
    Cohn noted that he has had "numerous" conversations with the President on the topic.
    "I have not been bashful saying what I think," he said, although he did not specify the nature of Trump's reaction.