For decades, the National Economic Council has been a home for wonks who quietly helped grease the policy gears in the White House.
But under director Gary Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs banker, the once-staid and process-oriented NEC has become a central force in the vicious policy battles playing out in President Donald Trump’s White House.
While Cohn has stocked the NEC with strong policy hands – a relative rarity at the top levels of Trump’s team – he’s also made it a target for conservatives in the West Wing who fear that Cohn is pushing the president to moderate his campaign promises, according to interviews with more than a dozen administration officials, trade experts, and Republican insiders.
In the run-up to this week’s G-20 summit in Germany, Cohn has been among the White House aides trying to prevent Trump from imposing broad and strict trade restrictions on steel imports. Trump is warming to a more targeted approach, administration officials say – an outcome that would be a win for Cohn, and a setback for the nationalist wing of the White House, including White House National Trade Council director Peter Navarro. Navarro had been advocating behind the scenes for across-the-board tariffs on steel imports as high as 25 percent, a White House official said.
“I think the president is pretty clear on what he wants. It’s the staff that is on different pages,” said one senior administration aide.
A White House spokeswoman did not provide comment for this story.
Cohn has been at the center of nearly every major policy fight in the White House, from the debate over withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement to the scuffle over pulling out of NAFTA. The policy battles have often pitted Cohn against Bannon and – even more frequently – Navarro.
Navarro, a former economics professor and advocate of more protectionist trade policies, was a driving force within the administration to exit NAFTA, and he’s been arguing behind the scenes for a forceful response to China’s trade practices. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Cohn’s differences with Navarro came to a head last week when Trump’s advisers faced off in a tense meeting at the White House, where they discussed imposing tariffs or other trade restrictions on steel imports. Cohn and a slew of other Trump advisers have raised concerns that across-the-board tariffs on imports could lead to retaliation from countries like China.
Cohn and Navarro have clashed behind the scenes for months, with one administration official saying they’ve shouted at each other during meetings.
“Gary doesn’t shy away from a debate. He likes debating people. He’s a New Yorker. He likes telling his viewpoint right to people’s face,” an NEC staffer said.
Cohn developed a reputation as a hard-charging type-A personality during his time at Goldman, but people who know him say he’s tried to be more diplomatic at the White House. Still, White House officials said his in-your-face personality often shines through. Sometimes, Cohn’s approach charms the president, but other times it turns Trump off, one White House official said.
Cohn’s staff has adopted his sharp-elbowed, Goldman-style approach to getting things done, an approach that has sometimes annoyed other White House officials.
The NEC is one of the few corners of the Trump administration staffed by advisers with deep policy experience and Washington connections. Cohn has amassed a staff of about 30 people, many of whom worked in prior administrations or have experience on Capitol Hill.
Early on, that gave Cohn an instant power base from which to push his agenda, especially since most federal agencies still lack crucial political appointees. “He’s got the A-team policy staff,” said one White House official.
Veteran congressional staffer Shahira Knight is one of the top advisers on tax reform within the administration and has personally briefed the president several times, since Treasury does not yet have an assistant secretary for tax policy in place. Former Transportation Department official DJ Gribbin is focused on Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Michael Catanzaro, a former energy adviser to House Speaker John Boehner and George W. Bush White House alum, is working on energy issues.
Cohn also recruited Everett Eissenstat, the chief Republican trade counsel for the Senate Finance Committee, to work on international economic issues. Eissenstat will play a key role at the upcoming G-20 summit in Germany, acting as the president’s sherpa throughout the meeting, and is known as someone with deep ties throughout the Washington policy community.
Eissenstat is already in Germany laying the groundwork for the meeting, according to White House officials, who said they are confident they can find a middle ground on trade that encourages collective action to address unfair trade practices. But officials don’t expect much agreement on climate change.
White House officials insist that there are no winners and losers in the administration’s policy debates, and they say that the NEC and other policy advisers are simply trying to give Trump the best information from which to make his decisions.
Created by President Bill Clinton in 1993, the NEC “is supposed to be the adjudicator for different voices in the administration to have their voices heard. The job is not to set policy but to establish the process by which policy gets sorted out,” said Tevi Troy, deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy under President George W. Bush.
Yet Trump came into office with few policies mapped out and fundamental questions over policy direction left undecided. White House officials acknowledge privately that there wasn’t a clear policymaking process during the early days of Trump’s presidency, with various senior aides pushing their favored policies directly to the president whenever they had a few minutes alone with him.
Chief strategist Steve Bannon and Navarro, in particular, have little influence over the inner workings of the NEC, but their own personal relationships with the president often give them the opportunity to make their own opposing arguments forcefully. Senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross often side with them, particularly on trade issues.
One White House official said the media’s description of the early weeks in the West Wing as “chaotic” is more accurate than administration officials like to admit. And this chaos has meant that the White House is not always producing policies that lines up with Trump’s campaign promises – or even a single, coherent worldview on key question like taxes and trade.
“On every issue, there has been a pitched battle between the two different camps in the administration,” said C. Fred Bergsten, director emeritus of the Peterson Institute for International Economics and member of the president’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations. “They do not have a coherent policy because it is being fought out issue by issue. That means both domestically and internationally, it sets the world very much on notice that the U.S. could go off the rails.”
In recent months, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has sought to formalize the White House’s policymaking apparatus, which in addition to the NEC includes the National Security Council, the Homeland Security Council and the Domestic Policy Council, among others. Cohn has built a close relationship with Trump. He meets directly with the president frequently, according to one administration official.
That relationship has proven decisive in at least one instance. In April, as news began spreading in Washington that Trump was considering withdrawing from NAFTA, policy staffers organized a series of emergency meeting to hash out their differences, with more moderate advisers determined to convince the president that pulling out would have dramatic consequences for the United States.
Amid the push by Bannon, Navarro and others for a complete withdrawal, senior lawmakers on Capitol Hill started to lobby Trump personally to remain in the trade agreement. And administration officials — including Cohn, United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue – lobbied the president directly, warning that withdrawing from NAFTA could hurt key parts of the country that voted for Trump, not to mention businesses and parts of the supply chain, officials said.
Trump later announced that he would try to renegotiate the deal, in a major victory for Cohn and his allies.
Cohn’s staff worked for months to find a middle ground proposal that would prevent Trump from withdrawing from the Paris climate deal, which won the support of nearly 200 countries in 2015. Cohn and others in the administration feared that a withdrawal could cause widespread international ill-will against the United States.
Cohn’s staff held a series of private meetings with fossil fuel companies to build support for their plan to remain in the agreement, while weakening former President Barack Obama’s domestic commitment to cut emissions.
During May’s G7 meeting in Italy, Cohn, who sat in on meetings between Trump and world leaders, seemed more confident than ever that the president was coming around, telling reporters that the president’s views on the issue were “evolving.” But in the end, Trump was swayed by Bannon and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who reinforced the president’s long-standing belief that the agreement was a bad deal for the United States.
“Bannon and Miller think, ‘We are America. We can do this all by ourselves,’” said one administration official. By contrast, this person went on, Cohn’s ideological camp likes to think that it’s a “global world out there, when it comes to national security and trade, and no one can change that. One can only work within it.”
Ben White contributed reporting.