• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Cohn Shows Backbone

In his battle for Charlottesville, the president’s moral lance has been broken. Irreparably, it’s been splintered in two. No longer does he wield any real moral authority over the American conscience, nor does he sit as the nation’s coxswain as it encounters these and future truculent waters. That seat was relinquished and won’t soon be ascertained. He lost it after favorably comparing the white supremacists with the leftist protestors who clashed last weekend at the University of Virginia. Ultimately, it was a member of the former who drove his car into a crowded street and murdered a young woman representative of the latter. The blame that warranted placement was supposedly clear. Quite obvious to all was that there was no moral equivalency in the aftermath of that which had transpired. There was merely right and wrong, clarified—if needed it be—by life and death.


Yet, even so, most of the cabinet members around President Trump have been atypically quiet in their responses to the Charlottesville event in general and to Trump’s comments in particular. A few Republicans from outside of the administration did chastise the president’s take on the matter. Among them were Senators Rubio and McCain, both practiced in the art of justifiably criticizing President Trump. Most other Republicans, though, were somewhat mute, or at least veiled in their anger. While Rubio and McCain explicitly denounced the president’s moral lapse, other Republicans (likely fearing reprisals from constituents at the voting booths) were more suggestive, though less clear in their denunciations. They avoided at all costs mentioning the president by name as they condemned the very racism that he condoned.


The first member of the Trump administration to candidly vent his frustrations about the president’s response was Gary Cohn. In an interview circulated by the Financial Times on Friday afternoon, Cohn laid bare his thoughts on the subject. In Cohn’s words, one senses immediately the tensions of a troubled man. He discussed at length the personal, professional, and ethical quagmire within which he now finds himself. He frankly admitted that, at the urging of his family and friends, he’s been considering resigning because of this. He explained that he had “come under enormous pressure both to resign and to remain” as the Chief Economic Advisor to Trump and to the nation that very much needs his good work. “As a patriotic American”, Cohn continued to say, “I am reluctant to leave my post because I feel a duty to fulfill my commitment to work on behalf of the American people”.

Notwithstanding that fact, he explained that he was “distressed over the events of the last two weeks”.


Cohn is a unique and vital character in this administration. He’s a Jew born of Cleveland, and a Democrat reared of New York. It’s that first attribution, that of his being a Jew, that made Trump’s attempt to equate neo-Nazis with liberal protestors especially painful for Cohn. Mind you, those same white supremacists were heard chanting “Jews will not replace us” the night before the attack. Responding to those neo-Nazi demonstrators, those vile men and women spending their days reading Chamberlain and Gobineau, listening to Wagner, and philosophizing with Heidegger and Nietzsche, Cohn assured them that they wouldn’t “cause this Jew to leave his job” and that he wouldn’t so easily nor willingly be replaced.

Cohn then shifted his attention from reprimanding the white-supremacists to reprimanding the administration. Cohn said that the administration, by which he meant President Trump, “must do better to consistently and unequivocally condemn these groups”. He didn’t point to Trump explicitly, and that’s something that I can’t help but bemoan, but Cohn’s denunciation of the White House’s response to Charlottesville was the strongest of its kind.


Yet his denunciation of Trump wasn’t merely a gossamer wing flapping in the breeze. Cohn intended to act on his moral outrage. It wasn’t confided to the Financial Times, but those whose knowledge of the situation is most intimate have said that Cohn had actually planned to quit. After Trump’s remarks on Charlottesville, he’d gone so far as to pen a resignation letter. He was preparing to leave on his own terms one of the most important jobs in America. It’s hard to overstate the courage this required, or to underscore the simple and admirable pride he displayed.


As stated, though, Cohn was rather alone in displaying these virtues. One might’ve expected Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury and former colleague of Cohn’s at Goldman Sachs, to have responded in a manner similar to the way in which Cohn did. After all, he too is Jewish and was standing—as was Cohn—directly beside the president when he made his infamous “fine people” on both sides remark. Doubtless, Mnuchin heard and absorbed Trump’s comment just the same. However, perhaps lacking in the same quantity of Semitic solidarity, Mnuchin was unmoved. He opted instead to defend President Trump. Quite at odds with what President Trump had only just expressed, Mnuchin claimed that “in no way” does President Trump believe that “neo-Nazis who endorse violence are equivalent to groups that demonstrate in peaceful and lawful ways”. He continued by saying that the media was contorting that which Trump had explicitly said.


As there was on Cohn, there was external pressure on Mnuchin to resign in the wake of Trump’s remarks. He was urged to do so by over three hundred former Yale University classmates. His 1985 university cohort called upon him as a “friend, classmate, and as a fellow American” to resign from his position as Secretary of the Treasury “in protest of President Trump’s support of Nazism and white supremacy.” Wielding the guilt card, they added that “We (your classmates) know you are better than this, and we are counting on you to do the right thing”. They iterated, as if it needed to be said once more, that “(President Trump) has declared himself a sympathizer with groups whose values are antithetical to those values we consider fundamental to our sacred honor as Americans, as men and women of Yale, and as decent human beings”.


It was a strong pitch, but Mnuchin was resolute. In commenting on the open letter, he redoubled his intent to stay in the administration and continue unperturbed with his work.

These disparate responses from Cohn and from Mnuchin were of much interest to the media because they’re the White House’s two most conspicuous Jews. But there was room enough for another top-tier administration official to make his position on the matter clear. Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil executive and current Secretary of State, was pressed on the topic by Fox News’s Chris Wallace. On his Sunday morning talk show, Wallace asked if America’s values (and their reception abroad) had been in any way compromised or at the very least complicated because of Trump’s Charlottesville remarks. Initially and rather adroitly, Tillerson avoided talking about the president specifically. The probing Matthews, though, proceeded to ask if it was or was not “harder to push American values around the world when some foreign leaders question the president’s values”. It was a pointed question, and it elicited a telling response. Tillerson said that America’s values are expressed to the international community “from the State Department” and that this message has “never changed”. Implicit in this statement is that the values are not expressed from the White House—or at least that they aren’t at this time. Wallace, the agile interlocutor that he is, pressed Tillerson further. He more directly asked the Secretary of State whether or not the president’s personal values, forgetting for the nonce American values, were now in question overseas. With staggering pith, Tillerson responded by saying that, indeed, the “president speaks for himself”.


Such a statement is unprecedented. In but a few words, the Secretary of State—who is, one might add, supposed to work hand-in-glove with the president in representing his and nation’s interests overseas—drew a line between him and Trump. Tillerson made clear that Trump’s values are not those same ones to which he and probably millions of other Americans adheres. While we’re traditionally led to believe that the president’s values coincide with and magnify our own, Tillerson made it known that at least in his estimation, they don’t. His values are completely distinct or completely absent. It’s good to know that those of some of the braver members of this administration, men like Tillerson and Cohn, aren’t absent as well.

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