When it comes to the chaotic round of firings, hirings and reshuffles that define personnel policy in the Trump White House, it’s easy to get distracted by the fireworks and miss the fundamentals.
It’s fascinating to focus on the drama behind the resignation of chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, but we should not ignore the broad, lasting transformation of American politics that lies behind the palace intrigue.
On its surface, Cohn’s departure — reportedly in response to the President’s insistence on imposing new tariffs on steel and aluminum — is simply an important policy dispute that Cohn lost.
Cohn, a tall, forceful man who looks every bit the Wall Street investment banker he is, was reportedly a leader of the “globalist” faction within the White House, made up of traditional, business-minded Republicans (and some Democrats, like Cohn) who deeply believe in free trade, the idea that America’s prosperity depends on having ready access to foreign markets and making it as easy as possible for other nations to sell goods here.
Aligned against the globalists are the “nationalists,” who favor imposing tariffs on cheaper, foreign-made goods so that they don’t undercut the price and profitability of American-made goods.
The leader of the nationalists, former chief strategist Steve Bannon, was recently forced out of the White House, but the faction still has powerful champions like Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and economist Peter Navarro, who reportedly feuded with Cohn for months.
The details are undeniably juicy. Months ago, Cohn — whose fellow globalists include first daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner — nearly quit in protest over Trump’s controversial remarks, which many called hesitant and equivocal, about violent protests by neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
White House watchers have been chronicling the static between Cohn and Navarro for months.
Axios reported a “bitter” showdown in the Oval Office in late February, with Cohn and Navarro and other top aides arguing for and against tariffs in front of Trump.
But in the end, Trump decided to impose tariffs, a stance that the often mercurial President has consistently held in the face of hard evidence that such protectionist actions end up costing American jobs. As Annie Lowrey noted of Trump’s tariff plan: “A study of a similar trade actions taken by the George W. Bush administration found that they cost the economy an estimated 200,000 jobs, including roughly 11,000 in Ohio, 10,000 in Michigan, 10,000 in Illinois, and 8,000 in Pennsylvania.”
But Trump is reading different numbers in those Rust Belt states: the polling that suggests he won in 2016 — and could get re-elected — by attracting working-class households in traditionally Democratic strongholds.
No less a blue-collar voice than the nation’s largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, issued a statement in support of steel tariffs.
“For years, we have called attention to the predatory practices of some steel exporting countries. Such practices hurt working people and cheat companies that produce in the U.S.,” the federation’s president, Richard Trumka, said in a statement. “We applaud the administration’s efforts today to fix this problem. ”
That’s what really matters about Cohn’s departure. Trump is signaling his intention to rewrite the political map by pushing a policy that — however distasteful it seems to Wall Street or costly for consumers — will be popular with a narrow slice of voters he needs in order to get a second term.
That’s not palace intrigue: it’s solid politics.