• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Bleeding Talent

March 2018


What once was a slow leakage of talent from the White House has become an unmitigated hemorrhage of essential personnel. Month by month, nay, week by week, it seems, the Trump administration loses to the private sector, to criminal prosecution, to blatant peculation, to public malfeasance, or to sheer incompetence another top official, assistant, or aide. It’s as if this administration were in the business of bloodletting—that ghastly, seldom salutary remedy of leeches and purges. It’s a remedy that was thought ineffectual even in Benjamin Rush’s and George Washington’s day (and, had the good doctor not prescribed it, the president’s life very well may have been preserved). But this administration seems hell bent against heeding the hard-learned lessons of the past. Instead, at every turn, this cabinet is pouring from its veins all of its vital pieces. In spurts or in trickles, away they flow. And sure, without one or two pieces, a body can survive, but lop off enough appendages, ablate enough organs, and you’re left with a withering skeleton of a thing ever in need of flesh.


Excised most recently from the Trump administration were Gary Cohn and Rex Tillerson. Tillerson, who served for a year as Secretary of State, and Cohn, who served for that same duration of time as Director of the National Economic Council, are leaving prematurely behind their transitory ventures into public office for the esteem, affluence, and reverence from which they came and to which—in haste, no doubt—they eagerly return. Both, in the prosperous days of their past, were industry titans, American moguls, millionaires many times over. These, however, were distinctions earned rather than inherited—quite unlike those bestowed upon President Trump before he took his first steps into the business that would consume his life.


Tillerson, like Cohn, was born not with these lustrous titles of titan and millionaire, but as a man to whom little was given and from whom even less was expected. Arising from an inauspicious birth, he became a spirited young ExxonMobil engineer before becoming a multinational mover and shaker. Over the course of three decades, he worked his way to the top of what would become, under his direction, the fourth most highly valued company on the planet. He left behind, hesitantly and at the urging of his dear wife, a lucrative severance package from ExxonMobil and a much-awaited retirement. For this act of selflessness, this act of forgoing—at least for a while—the enjoyment of his hard-earned wealth and his Texas estate just to serve in public office, we must tip our hats to him and lend him our thanks. The ancients always thought it most honorable when a man, comfortably and profitably endowed, agreed reluctantly to serve his country (his reluctance was a sign that he had no pretentions for power, nor intentions for personal financial gain). However, noble though those his motivations may have been, and regardless of his past success, with the blithe flick of a Tweet, President Trump fired him. From a comfortable, impersonal, and unprofessional distance, the president watched as his hand-chosen, petro-plutocrat Tillerson vanished from memory and back into private life.


Tillerson’s ouster from the administration was startling, as all firings at that level of government tend to be, but it wasn’t entirely surprising; his and Trump’s relationship from the outset was fraught, to put the matter gently. Their incompatibility, so vital for a president and this Secretary of State, was immediately and painfully obvious. It was evident from their earliest days together, and thereafter, it endured. Between the two floated a cool reserve, a sort of froideur whose temperature dropped when problems arose—and as we witnessed, a great many problems did arise. So frigid was their relationship, so antipodal and different their objectives and their values, that in the end, there sat between them nothing more than an impenetrable body of ice.


Gary Cohn’s relationship with the president was different. Between them, there never appeared to be the same amount of mutual enmity nor the natural acrimony that so pervaded Tillerson’s relationship with Trump. Like Tillerson, though, Cohn came to his success from a humble beginning. Born of Jewish parentage from a blue-collar suburb of Ohio, Cohn ascended from an unremarkable youth, to an average university, to the summit of all American mountains, the top of the pre-eminent financial institution in the world. He became an executive at Goldman Sachs.


He was the end, the epitome, and complete manifestation of the “Goldman Way”—that process whereby Goldman Sachs shapes and molds in its image its ideal employee. It’s a formula that calls upon the ambitious sons and daughters of the middle-class milieu and forges them and their sedulous spirits into workers who can churn out gold without ever having had suckled on a silver spoon and who can make economic bounties without having been fed a sturgeon’s eggs. Cohn inhered in his character all of those qualities that the company sought in an employee and he fully embodied the “Goldman Way”. He was amicable yet efficient, magnanimous yet narrowly focused, and industrious through and through. He put to work these qualities and became within that saturated realm of investments, mergers, acquisitions, bonds, and securities an absolute star.


It was the temptation of a new challenge, the promise of a fertile and untested pasture that led him to public service via Donald Trump. Though it must be said, their world-views and the economic foundations upon which their ideologies are built, were—like those of Tillerson and Trump—from the start very different. Trump was and is a nationalist, Cohn a globalist. Where Trump saw as the only game in town a zero-sum affair, Cohn knew this wasn’t the case and that, indeed, all boats can and will rise. Where Trump saw the world provincially, Cohn viewed it universally. Trump lusted over tariffs and fantasized about trade wars, embargoes, and the oxymoronic concept of clean coal. Cohn championed free trade, unfettered markets, and sensible, farsighted sources of energy. Importantly, though, and perhaps the only thing that bound them together for a year, was their shared and ardent goal to lessen the tax burden. Both vehemently agreed that the status quo was stifling the country’s growth and impinging upon the nation’s potential. Cohn became one of the tax bill’s main architects, the Michelangelo of money returning to the pockets of businesses and consumers. In this role, he was not only influential, but invaluable. Without his economic prowess, it’s likely the bill wouldn’t have been done. Ultimately, it may be the Trump name—as always it is—brandished atop the bill, but it’s the Cohn aesthetic, the Clevelander’s deft and skilled hand, that truly crafted it.


But the sweet nectar of victory is a transitory thing. Pleasures are too often and too quickly fleeting and ambitious men always want more. After seeing the tax code reformed and the markets respond with a bullish jolt, President Trump wanted to begin systematically implanting his long-sought tariffs. He thought they too would be a boon. Cohn, perhaps naively, thought that Trump would be sated with this one tax reform win. The stock market never looked so sanguine, businesses were never so optimistic, and consumers were never so eager to file for tax returns en masse. He thought that all of these propitious signs and these excited remarks would stave off Trump’s inveterate urge to impose tariffs and start an inevitable trade war. Doubtless, Cohn explained to Trump as best he could that all gains stemming from this reduction in taxation would be lost with the imposition of a tariff. If not all, then many of the recent steps forward would be immediately retraced.


Heeding the ill-informed advice of others, particularly the inward-looking opinions of economists Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross, President Trump diverged with Cohn on this fundamental point. He announced on Friday that, in the coming days, America would begin imposing upon large swaths of imported steel and aluminum 25% and 10% tariffs, respectively. Cohn realized that in failing to persuade the president against this measure, he’d lost his influence in the West Wing. From the start, the words Cohn spoke, in their journey to the president’s ear, travelled a tenuous, circuitous path. Now, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, that his influenced had waned and his time was up. He could no longer bear to advise a president who was unwilling to take his advice.


His pride intact, his thick-skin just as taut, Cohn tendered his resignation rather than carry on. To attempt to do the latter would’ve been vain. The administration had made Cohn into a marginal figure, to whom the president, when it suited his fancy, would less and less frequently turn. It’s sad, and frankly telling, to realize that possibly the most intelligent, competent, and singularly accomplished man this administration had known was treated in so dispensable and rather callous a way. Cohn’s talents far exceed the bounds to which they had been confined, and though the country is no better with his having left, we certainly can’t blame him for not having tried.


Gone, then, in the blink of an eye are two “globalists”—two moderates, two veterans, two voices that might’ve chastened some of the uglier parts of President Trump’s infamous caprice. Now, in their absence, surrounding the president are mainly sycophants and yes-men. They’re people like Peter Navarro, Stephen Miller, and Mike Pompeo—men to whom Trump can turn without facing pushback or fearing dissent. They’re people who’ve been to him unwaveringly loyal and agreeable. They’ll build for him a cabinet of congeniality, one in which all opinions, however misinformed or rash, are given a green light, if only not to anger the boss. This is no healthy way to govern. It’s no sturdy constitution. After all, it’s contention that fosters progression. In no other way do we move—at least not forward we don’t.

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