Trump is still stewing over Cohn's rebuke of his response to the violence in Charlottesville
Sources say the President is frustrated with Cohn
It’s been nearly a week since President Donald Trump fielded an extraordinary rebuke from his top economic adviser Gary Cohn, but Trump is still stewing over Cohn’s rebuke, multiple sources familiar with the situation told CNN – and Cohn’s relationship with the President remains tenuous as a result.
The relationship between the two men has hit rocky terrain at a time when the administration has put its push for tax reform on the front burner – a high-profile gambit in which Cohn is playing a central role. The timing of the friction doesn’t bode well for the administration’s tax reform efforts, but it is also sheltering Cohn from the President’s ire.
Cohn had criticized Trump’s response to Charlottesville by telling the Financial Times that “the administration can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning” hate groups.
But while Trump’s boiling frustrations with other top staffers have recently led to a spate of high-profile exits from the West Wing, multiple sources close to the White House said Cohn appears unlikely to share that same fate.
One person close to the White House says that while Trump has grown annoyed with Cohn, he has come to the realization that he cannot afford to lose additional top staffers, particularly those with active roles in key elements of his agenda.
As a member of the “Big Six” group of Trump administration officials and Republican congressional leaders, Cohn has been a crucial link between the President and Capitol Hill, working to craft a tax reform proposal that fits within Trump’s vision and could earn broad GOP support.
“Do you know how important he is to tax reform?” a senior administration official said Thursday. “He’s been a significant player on tax reform and infrastructure, and now on hurricane relief.”
Cohn is widely viewed as a crucial piece of the administration’s efforts on Capitol Hill; and two sources familiar with those discussions said the administration’s efforts to pass tax reform would suffer if Cohn were pushed out.
The sources, who described Cohn’s role in discussions with GOP congressional leaders as “pivotal,” said he has developed a strong rapport with members of Congress involved in the drafting of tax reform proposals and is “very well-regarded.”
“He is just a heavyweight in these meetings,” said one source, who added that members of Congress are attracted to Cohn’s handle of the issues and his “candor.”
Still, even as advisers signal Cohn’s future is safe and warn Trump that firing Cohn would needlessly hurt the administration, Trump’s discontent has manifested itself in recent days – and he has been known to buck cautionary advice.
Even as he prepared to leave for Springfield, Missouri, to make his opening pitch to the public on tax reform, Trump grumbled privately about Cohn, making clear he was still annoyed with his top economic adviser’s criticism of his Charlottesville response.
Just a few hours later, as he launched into his tax reform pitch, Trump offered thanks to several key advisers on the matter – including his Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Cohn’s partner in the effort – but didn’t mention Cohn.
“Anybody I forgot?” Trump had said.
But that moment also revealed the extent of the administration’s concern about any signaling that Cohn is on the outs.
As reporters picked up on the remarks, the White House’s communications shop went into rapid response mode – emailing several reporters, unprompted, to dismiss any tea leaf reading on the matter, insisting that Trump does not “typically” call out staff for praise in public remarks, only members of his Cabinet. But that explanation flew in the face of Trump’s praise for two members of his staff in those same remarks, his chief of staff John Kelly and daughter Ivanka Trump, a senior adviser.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed those talking points and dismissed any questions about Cohn’s fate on Air Force One’s return leg.
“Look, Gary is here. The President is here. They’re both working hard and extremely committed to providing tax relief for middle-class America. The President has made very clear this is a top priority for him, for his administration, and Gary is one of the people leading the charge in that effort for him and will continue to do that,” Sanders told reporters.
Cohn’s comments to the Financial Times came in the wake of reports that he was fuming over Trump’s suggestion that both white supremacists and counter-protesters shared blame for the Charlottesville violence. He told the Times he considered resigning from the administration.
Sanders acknowledged that Cohn has made his concerns known to Trump before the interview, but insisted they remained in “regular contact” and suggested the relationship had not soured.
“The President, as I said, and Gary, have spoken many times. Gary has not held back,” Sanders said.
But Trump’s frustrations with his top economic adviser don’t just date back to Charlottesville.
The President has also found himself increasingly at odds with Cohn over their views on trade, deriding Cohn as a “globalist” in meetings with others and in Cohn’s presence, a source close to the White House said.
Trump has urged his advisers for tougher action on trade – particularly toward China – but has faced resistance from some of his top advisers, including Cohn, a former Wall Street banker who favors free trade policies.
“I want tariffs,” Trump told Cohn and other top advisers in an Oval Office meeting early this month aimed at queuing up incremental trade actions against China, a source with direct knowledge of the meeting told CNN.
Trump then proceeded to deride the “globalists” who serve in his administration, a term that the President’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon – a trade hardliner – has used to describe Cohn and other moderates at the White House.
Now, Bannon’s exit from the White House has left fewer influential voices at the President’s side pushing for tough trade action, leaving Trump increasingly isolated on the issue.
But so far, Trump has not allowed his frustrations with Cohn to turn into the latest firing.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.