As Jonathan Swift once noted: “There is nothing constant in this world but inconsistency.”
That’s the operative motto for all things Trump, one that makes analyzing the gap between what he thinks and what he tweets much easier. Along those lines, my former boss from my Goldman Sachs days—Gary Cohn—just resigned from his White House post as chief economic adviser to the Chaos Producer in Chief. This was ostensibly in protest against the president’s announcement about imposing steel and aluminum tariffs. The next day, Trump signed the order sealing that deal, citing his actions as a “matter of necessity for our security.”
Along the way, he said there would be no exemptions to the tariffs, then said signed the order—for Canada and Mexico. Trump glowed in the light of his new-found power grab over trade agreements, leaving himself room to decide which countries would be “in” and “out” with respect to these and other tariffs in the future. And that was the week that was in Trump World.
The timing of Cohn’s departure certainly put a wrench in his plans to convene executives dependent on steel and present their case against steel tariffs to Trump. Instead, Trump signed the tariffs order flanked by steel and aluminum workers supporting it. Speaking of steel, Cohn’s nerves were seemingly made of that metal. At Goldman, he was the man who regularly waded through deals without losing his cool (unlike Trump). On 9/11, I witnessed him directing traders to keep trading oil as shreds of debris and billows of smoke engulfed the windows of the Goldman trading floor, only a few blocks away from the World Trade Center.
He became president (or number two) at Goldman, continually handling the less “cool” behavior of chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who remained above him in the pecking order for decades. Cohn commanded daily activities at Goldman that led to the firm’s creation of shady financial instruments that were later at the core of the financial crisis. Under Cohn, Goldman was bailed out by U.S. taxpayers. The firm morphed, for government subsidy purposes, into a bank holding company, though it handled scant deposits from regular people. It did this to retain access to Federal Reserve support, as it has done, over the past decade. Cohn was also at Goldman when it reached a $5 billion settlement with the Department of Justice over its consistent misconduct regarding mortgage-related securities from 2005 to 2007.
That type of conflict-meets-crisis readied him for his government service. When Cohn came up against Trump, the president’s flavor-of-the-minute trade policy hawk, Peter Navarro, met “Globalist Gary” head on. Shortly thereafter, Cohn’s Trump administration career was over.
The financial news media didn’t take Cohn’s departure well. Past transgressions forgotten completely, it considered Cohn, one of the few adults in the room, another Trump appointee biting the dust, pointing to what we already know: Inconsistency is the only constant in this White House.
When Trump added imported steel and aluminum to his list of already announced tariffs for solar panels and washing machines, members of his own party joined the world in expressing their disapproval. Many business sectors reliant on raw steel expressed fears that the tariffs would ultimately lead to major job losses, not gains, throughout that U.S. economy. Though the action invoked Section 232 of the 1962 Trade Expansion Act, the rest of the world knows that imported steel costs don’t represent security risks, whereas the alienation of allies actually does.
As European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said: “We strongly regret this step, which appears to represent a blatant intervention to protect U.S. domestic industry and not to be based on any national security justification.” He vowed that Europe would retaliate.
There were three sets of tariffs proposed by the Commerce Department, run by billionaire Wilbur Ross, and the latest, a 25 percent tariff on steel and 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports, are the harshest so far. For the president to circumvent Congress on tariffs, it must allegedly alleviate what would otherwise be a national security risk. That’s just the loophole Trump used to ostensibly deliver on his campaign promises to American steelworkers. The problem is that the tariffs could wind up hurting those and other workers, as well as American consumers, instead. It would also add fuel to the fire in an already existing trade war.