Cohn talks Trump administration chaos, tariff negotiations

President Donald Trump’s former top economist Gary Cohn describes in a new interview a chaotic end run by two administration rivals to enact punishing tariffs on steel and aluminum that led to his eventual resignation.

Speaking to the Freakonomics podcast, Cohn recalled futile attempts to dissuade Trump from applying the new tariffs, which helped launch a global trade war. Instead, he said two economic hawks — trade adviser Peter Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — skirted White House protocols to persuade Trump the tariffs were necessary.

“What happened in the White House is we got to a point, unfortunately, where one or two people decided that they were going to no longer be part of a process and a debate,” Cohn said, claiming Ross and Navarro went around then-chief of staff John Kelly to arrange meetings on the subject.

“They were going to use a direct connection to the President to set up a meeting and call in CEOs of aluminum companies and steel companies to announce steel tariffs and aluminum tariffs without there being a process and a procedure to set up that meeting,” he said.

The tariffs on steel and aluminum that Trump announced last year set off cascading trade moves. So far, the tariffs have not led to the President’s desired reduction in trade deficits; instead, the Census Bureau said last week that the US trade deficit had hit a 10-year high in 2018, growing by $69 billion.

Trump has been seeking a trade deal with China that could ease some of the tariffs he’s slapped on imports, though a planned summit to finalize an agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping has been put on hold.

“I think the US is desperate right now for an agreement,” Cohn said of the China talks. “The President needs a win.”

Trump on Wednesday denied he was in a rush to secure agreement from Beijing, instead saying he was happy to continue collecting tariffs from China as that country’s economy struggles.

“We’re collecting billions and billions of dollars,” he said at the White House. “We’ve never had money like that pouring in from China.”

Cohn left the White House a year ago amid a dispute over the tariffs. Among some of Trump’s more hardline aides, he was labeled disparagingly as a “globalist,” a moniker he said he wears happily.

In retelling the series of events that led to the metal tariffs, Cohn confirmed the sense of chaos that pervaded at the time — and still colors many White House decisions, like Trump’s abrupt announcement he was withdrawing US troops from Syria or some of his Cabinet nominations.

The White House has denied rampant chaos in Trump’s decision-making, even as the President says he prefers to oversee a chaotic environment than a staid one. Cohn — who says he still occasionally speaks with Trump on hiring decisions — described an atmosphere in the West Wing so disorderly he had little choice but to resign.

“When the process breaks down, then you’re, sort of, in my mind, living in chaos,” he said. “I don’t want to live in a chaotic organization. I’ll live in an organization where people vehemently disagree all day long. As long as there’s a policy to vehemently disagree. When people start end-running the process and start trying to take over, that’s not an organization that I wanted to be part of.”

Ultimately, Trump needed little convincing on tariffs, Cohn said, describing an entrenched viewpoint informed by a decades-old understanding of the American economy.

“I was losing the war on tariffs every day with the President,” Cohn said. “I knew I wasn’t convincing him I was right. I was not going to take a 74-year-old man who’s believed something since he was 30 and convince him that I was right. Believe me, I tried.”