• Daniel Ethan Finneran

The Goldman Sachs Purge

March 2018

Curious to note—however inconsequential doing so might be—is the fact that the White House’s ongoing purge of former Goldman Sachs employees is nearly complete. With the impending departure of Gary Cohn, who served for just over a year as the Director of the National Economic Council, only one Goldman alumnus remains. The last of his venerable bunch is, of course, Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin. With quiet determination (but not without his own fair share of public scandal and expense), Mnuchin has outlived all others in the capricious employ of Mr. Trump.

Those others, now with the addition of Cohn’s name to the list, include such luminary, transitory figures as the president’s former top cabinet advisor Steve Bannon, his pugnacious press secretary Anthony Scaramucci, and his Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell.

We begin with the most fascinating of the four. Scaramucci served the Trump administration briefest, though he did so perhaps most memorably. Prior to his leap into public office, he was a powerful Wall Street broker, first at Goldman Sachs and then at Lehman Brothers. Following that, he created his own finance company whose success enabled him to parlay his winning personality into television appearances. Naturally, it was there he piqued the televisual sense of the president.

He was brought on by President Trump to orchestrate a teetering press department forever out of tune. Admittedly, the dissonance begins with the president himself, but there are ways of harmonizing all the vagaries and noise. Scaramucci’s job was to harmonize, when needed to antagonize, but always and above all to talk. The task proved too much. He revealed himself not only loquacious (an admirable trait not in the least unexpected), but gratuitous in his use of bad words. After a profanity-ridden phone conversation with a Washington Post reporter, he was forced to step down. The use of imprecations, it seems, is a presidential prerogative inaccessible to those below.

Compared with Scaramucci’s, Steve Bannon’s departure was equally as public. Tracing Bannon’s path is a bit more circuitous and not as all as ostentatiously appealing. He was an unassuming but exuberantly ambitious employee at Goldman Sachs, assigned to the company’s large mergers and acquisitions division. In that setting, Bannon absolutely thrived, but you’re unlikely to hear about his erstwhile success in that realm today. Attend his speeches, sit in on an interview, and you’ll sense little mention nor much pride in his having done the lucrative work that he did. Instead, he incessantly excoriates the moneyed-class and the “globalist” well-to-do, the very people from whose milieu he most recently came. In every tirade, there lives this touch of irony.

His “economic nationalist” ideology, so congenial to the primal instinct and the urge of Trump, yet so anathema to the financial elites, found a home in the president’s heart. But a shared vision of a renewed American economy couldn’t salvage what had come of his and the president’s strained relationship. Bannon, to put it mildly, was bumptious and, what’s worse, conspicuously so. He made it known to colleagues, to reporters, and to whomever would listen that he was a force with which to reckon and one that was disproportionately influential in the president’s ear. In a cabinet full of stars, Bannon thought that his shined brightest. However, he was heedless of his mythology. Like an Icarus of old, in this case irascible rather than juvenile, Bannon fell from great heights—another Goldman alumnus on the ground.

Dina Powell, unlike the other men in so many ways, started her career not in finance but in politics. An Egyptian immigrant, she came to Texas and worked for the longhorn state’s political elite. For years she worked sedulously at the State Department under President Bush. Thence she moved to Goldman Sachs, where she coordinated overseas and small business investments. Having no formal background in finance, it’s all the more impressive that she succeeded in this behemoth of a financial company in the way she did. She built a staggering and impressive portfolio that extended an international reach. Before this last week and the leaving of Gary Cohn, she was the most recent to depart. She left the administration without an ill word to say and happily moved back to the company from which she and everyone else came.

Cohn now follows in their footsteps. All of them found, voluntarily or otherwise, their premature exit from the Executive Branch. So too, at the moment, does Cohn. He’s the penultimate Goldman Sachs employee to leave an administration and a man who promised us so often he’d never deign to bring aboard the sort of moneyed men of Cohn’s ilk. President Trump, throughout the duration of his 2016 campaign, was absolutely hell-bent against the idea of having in his Oval Office people who were well-heeled.

He accused Wall Street, that unnavigable, dangerous road from which Cohn, Mnuchin, Scaramucci, Bannon, and Powell arrived to D.C., as having gotten “away with murder” in recent years. He lambasted other politicians—first Ted Cruz and then Hillary Clinton—for being too entwined with Wall street in general, but, specifically, with Goldman Sachs (in the case of Cruz, through his wife Heidi and in that of Clinton, through her husband and her speeches). Unlike these sell-outs, Trump said, he wouldn’t be beholden to the richest 1%—to the corrupt politicians lathered up with corporate greed or to the crony, dirty capitalists; he’d be the patron of the everyman and the saint of the forsaken. He’d be the champion not of the big tunas like Goldman, but of the little fishes in the sea. He’d be tough on the banks and make them answer for their subversion and their imagined misdeeds. He’d banish from the “swamp” all those who once called Wall Street home and he’d welcome only those who were clean.

Or, he wouldn’t. The temptation to pluck from Goldman Sachs its best employees, presidents, and managers was too strong. Doubtless, few could blame him for having succumbed to such an intoxicating temptation; it’s the type of aroma to which few presidents have been immune. For many years, so long as Goldman Sachs has been the pre-eminent player in international finance, presidents from Roosevelt to Bush, Eisenhower to Obama have jumped at the chance to nab the company’s best employees. Perhaps more so than any other single company in any sector of the American economy, Goldman Sachs has dutifully loaned to the government more than its fair share of talent, and there’s a reason that, to Goldman Sachs, the government habitually returns.

But now, a year into his presidency, Trump has changed his tune. He’s returning to his campaign pledge that he’d have not the Goldman man or woman running the show, but rather, the every-man and the every-woman; not the upper-crust but the middle class; not the nabob but the neighbor down the street. But is a government by the best, the most successful, the most competent, and the most intelligent really something we’d rather not want? Surely some (like Scaramucci and Bannon) turn out to be duds, but by and large, the infusion of Goldman Sachs employees into the government is a boon. One can hope that in the vacancy left by this last exodus, new faces from the top levels of business and finance do emerge.

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