In an attempt to rebut reports that he is governing ineffectively and beholden to a small group of fringe right-wing aides, President Donald Trump is reportedly considering yet another White House staff shakeup just 11 weeks into his presidency.
Axios and The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Trump is thinking of dismissing or demoting his current chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and his key adviser, Steve Bannon. Both outlets reported that former Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn ― who currently serves as Trump’s top economic adviser ― is a key contender to replace Priebus.
“Gary Cohn would be the top pick for chief of staff,” if Priebus is fired, a White House official told The Huffington Post.
In an internal struggle for Trump’s good graces, Cohn has a strong hand: He’s rich, close to the Trump family and has ex-employees who now work for the Trump family in the White House. Perhaps most importantly, his promotion could salve Trump’s ego, which has been bruised by his relatively small inauguration crowd and a series of political failures that began with his attempt to ban Muslims from traveling to the United States and continued through his catastrophic attempt to repeal Obamacare.
Cohn “speaks the language of ‘business,’ which is what Trump understands,” the White House official noted. The language of business is money: Cohn walked away with $285 million when he left Goldman Sachs for the Trump administration, and is in many ways a stand-in for the kind of New York businessmen who have shunned Trump for years. After years of being spurned by the American banking elite ― Trump famously had to turn to Deutsche Bank for cash after burning his creditors in bankruptcy ― he appears to enjoy being part of the club.
The White House denied the reports of a staff shakeup, writing in a statement that “the only thing we are shaking up is the way Washington operates as we push the President’s aggressive agenda forward.”
Cohn is personally close to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, and Trump’s daughter and aide Ivanka, the White House official notes. Cohn’s status in the White House is also bolstered by Goldman Sachs veteran Dina Powell, who was effectively hired as an aid to and proxy for Ivanka and now serves on the National Security Council.
“Dina Powell is going to be a big, big person in the White House” the official said. “She can boost Cohn, and Cohn can do the same for her.”
After spending a decade as the president and COO of Goldman Sachs, Cohn also has the boardroom skills to use those connections to his advantage. Bannon’s most recent managerial efforts focused on leading the relatively small newsroom at Breitbart, a website popular with white nationalists.
Everyone who works on Wall Street does it for the same reason: the money. But high finance attracts a host of different personality types (like Cohn, Bannon is a Goldman alum).
For the last half of the 20th century, big banks were a socially acceptable career choice for people with strong appetites for personal financial gain who were also interested in deploying their fortunes to support liberal causes. Banking summoned Democrats from the ether the way the oil and gas industry drew Republicans. There are still some Democrats on Wall Street today, but many of them changed teams after the financial crisis, including Cohn.
During the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Cohn was a heavyweight Democrat, offering up over $136,000 to official party organs while supporting individual candidates, including stalwart liberal Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.). His only donation to a Republican prior to the financial crisis, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, was a $2,000 check to Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) in 2004.
But in December of 2009, Cohn’s donations took a dramatic turn. He started giving to right-wing darlings like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), former Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), while pouring tens of thousands of dollars a cycle into the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Every Republican is Crucial PAC.
Though Cohn is often described as a political moderate, and his opponents in the Trump White House even deride him as a “Democrat,” his partisan transformation occurred as Republicans were making a dramatic shift to the right.
Cohn’s pattern of contributions doesn’t fit that of an opportunist looking to buy access to winning candidates. Prior to December 2009, he gave to Democrats whether the party’s political fortunes appeared good or bad. But that month, the House of Representatives passed its version of what would become known as the Dodd-Frank Act, and did so without the support of a single House Republican.
Since then, Cohn has not flexed any particularly impressive liberal ideological muscles. During his tenure in the Trump administration, his work has included efforts on a health care bill that would have rescinded coverage from 24 million Americans ― not exactly the Wellstone-ian ideal.
Cohn didn’t suffer any meaningful personal financial consequences from Dodd-Frank ($285 million, the amount he left Goldman Sachs with, is more than 5,100 times the median household income). But many on Wall Street felt attacked by the regulatory restructuring, which shifted some political and economic power away from the private sector and into the hands of federal authorities.
“One of the major things people want from politicians is psychic income,” former House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told HuffPost in 2014. “They want to be told that they are wonderful people, that their jobs are important for the human race, that they contribute greatly. Lloyd Blankfein was not really kidding when he said that, ‘We are doing God’s work.’ That’s his inner feeling. I don’t think that the [Dodd-Frank] legislation really hurt them much …. But we really hurt their feelings mightily.”
Wall Street had, of course, caused millions of foreclosures and created vast human suffering by throwing the global economy into the most severe economic calamity since the Great Depression. Many families have yet to recover, but Cohn and other top bankers survived with padded pockets thanks to federal support.
Cohn’s appointment as White House Chief of staff wouldn’t just be a boon for bank lobbyists seeking lucrative new loopholes. It would be a restoration of finance to the center of American politics.