In his next logical stop on the contemporary PR trail to centrist redemption, Gary Cohn went on a podcast.
Removed from The Beltway for almost exactly a year, Gary is clearly still in the process of laundering his reputation in order to raise capital for whatever comes next. We are pretty certain that The Big Grundle has some ideas about doing something, and it's hard to raise money in The Hamptons or the Upper West Side when people still remember you standing behind Trump as he equivocated on Nazis in Virginia. Sitting down to chat on a podcast is the perfect medium to reach the very people who love the idea of being in business with a former Goldman president, but want an excuse to feel better about the optics of investing with a former top-level Trump official.
And the niche section of the media that cares about this nonsense is eating up Gary's interview, proclaiming that he has gone full Trump apostate and using verbs like "lash out." So the narrative that Gary wants is starting to fall into place. But we're here to tell you that Gary didn't really make ANY news, and chose instead to reinforce almost every assumption we have had about his time spent inside the gaping maw of chaos and personality disorders that is the Trump administration.
Over the course of a reasonably wide-ranging interview with Freakonomic Radio's Stephen J. Dubner, Cohn filled in many of the details that we'd been forced to leave techincially blank regarding his ill-fitted/fated time in the West Wing. Take for instance, how he got there in the first place. After acting as de facto CEO of Goldman Sachs while Lloyd Blankfein was treated for cancer, Gary realized that he was ready for a bigger role, there or somewhere else:
COHN: I did whatever I did to protect the firm. I went when I needed to go, I did what I needed to go. And to me the most important thing for Lloyd was for him to get healthy. We had worked together our whole life. But at that point, I was letting the board know that I wasn’t going to be here forever. So I sat down, and I made it clear that I would be gone by the end of the year.
DUBNER: Oh, regardless?
COHN: Yeah, I was going. And the Trump thing was pure lucky coincidence.
This tracks with everything we heard from inside Goldman Sachs at the time, and it is really the only logical rationale for a wildly successful trader like Gary Cohn to take such a huge risk on the biggest trade of his career. In the end, the trade sucked, and Gary is no longer really denying it:
COHN: The White House in itself is an amazing organization in many ways. It’s the craziest organization under any presidency, and it’s an amazing organization under any presidency.
This is Goldman Sachs media training for "You wouldn't believe half the shit I saw inside that joint."
Other things Gary is done pretending didn't happen are:
- Trump being a shitty negotiator who had to be kept away from tax reform legislation:
COHN: This is not a secret that at one point he wanted a 15 percent corporate tax rate. And I just told him a 15 percent corporate tax rate will not work.
DUBNER: Will not work — will not raise enough money, or politically?
COHN: It just a) politically and b) algebraic. I mean, when you start understanding the numbers of what a 15 percent tax rate means, we’d have to manipulate so many other things in the code. So, I personally would have settled for 25. The corporates would have settled for 25.
He then said, “Okay. I could live with 20. But if you —” and he was talking to Mnuchin and I at the time, he said, “If you guys start at 20, you’ll end up going higher. I know you. I know you can’t negotiate that well.” I said, “If we start at 20, we’ll end up at 20, we’ll hold it. We’ll hold it.” And we were holding 20. He was the one that kept willing — he was willing to go higher.
- Charlottesville was a soul-searching moment that led Gary to conclude lowering taxes was more important than his actual soul:
DUBNER: From what I’ve read, you were ready to resign then, and kind of had to be talked out of it. You were talked out of it.
COHN: Yeah, we had had two or three, I would say, very intense, very open, very honest discussions. And it boiled down to the president asking me, as his leader of tax reform in the White House and the person that he felt could help him get it done, to please stay on through tax reform.
DUBNER: All right.
COHN: And I did agree to that.
- He couldn't have given less of a shit that Breitbart tried to undercut him with its own unsubtle anti-semitism:
COHN: It’s no secret, I am known as the globalist in the White House. Thank you Breitbart for putting little globes next to my name every time you print my name. It’s one of my crowning successes in the White House that I’m now known as a globalist, not a nationalist.
DUBNER: I don’t think it was a compliment, by the way, when they put it next to you.
COHN: It wasn’t a compliment for Breitbart. It was a compliment for me, though! It was a compliment for me though. So the fact that I’m a globalist, also I — that’s a synonym for realist. Because I believe we live in a globalized world and we’re not putting that toothpaste back in the tube.
-He knew that he would have been a terrible Fed Chair:
COHN: I am totally not the person to be the chairman of the Fed. That would be the worst position you could give to Gary Cohn.
DUBNER: Because you’re too excitable, or why?
COHN: No it’s a real, real, real academic position sitting with Ph.D. economists all day long and debating the economic tilt/slant micro of the U.S. economy. It’s not my skill set. One of my successes in life is knowing what I’m good at, and more importantly knowing what I’m not good at. I would not have been good at that job.
COHN: Tariffs don’t work. If anything, they hurt the economy because if you’re a typical American worker, you have a finite amount of income to spend. If you have to spend more on the necessity products that you need to live, you have less to spend on the services that you want to buy. And you definitely don’t have anything left over to save. So we should try and make the goods as cheap as possible. And we don’t produce the goods in the United States; we import the goods from other countries. And if we could produce the goods as cheaply as other countries do, we would produce them in the United States.
DUBNER: Now, every Ph.D. economist that I’ve ever come across would agree — I would say, probably 99.5 percent — with what you just said.
COHN: No, I think 99.99999.
DUBNER: But the one that doesn’t, is in the White House, which is Peter Navarro, is that right?
COHN: There’s only one in the world. That we know of.
Oh, he wasn't done...
COHN:...And I was more than happy, I was actually excited to go in and fight with Peter Navarro every day and I was happy to be on the 99.9999 percent of the equation and explain and use real-life examples to what would happen.
DUBNER: And what would his defense be? Because it’s hard to defend — and, to be fair, there have been people in history, Copernicus, who were outliers, but they were right. Okay. Maybe that’s Peter Navarro’s view. What would his defense be?
COHN: Well his defense would be that he was the Copernicus, that he would be right. I don’t think you or I will live long enough to ever see him right. And the data just came out for last year that proves that so far he’s completely wrong. So far he’s been unable to show anyone any facts that he’s right.
We are actually giggling as we read this for the tenth time today. And we start to really lose our breath when we get to the part where Gary tees off on Navarro and Wilbur Ross at once:
COHN:...What happened in the White House is we got to a point, unfortunately, where one or two people decided that they were going to no longer be part of a process and a debate. And they were going to use a direct connection to the president to set up a meeting and call in C.E.O.’s of aluminum companies and steel companies to announce steel tariffs and aluminum tariffs without there being a process and a procedure to set up that meeting; without the chief of staff knowing there was a meeting; without the Office of Legal Counsel having written an executive order or a memo or anything to sign. And they created that meeting without anyone knowing it.
DUBNER: These were [Peter] Navarro and Wilbur Ross? Are those the two people?
COHN: Yes. Those are the two people.
Okay, so maybe Gary made a little news.
The interview is worth a listen in order to experience Gary's bemused tone. He is definitely giving off the vibe of a guy who's looking back at an experience that he's not eager to repeat, unless that experience would be Treasury Secretary in the coming Dimon administration:
DUBNER: What about politics, per se?
COHN: I mean, I’m not an elected official and I never intend to be an elected official. Let’s make sure about that. I don’t think I would ever — I know I would never run for anything. If I could serve my country again, I would never rule that out. I think it’s one of the greatest honors that you can have is to serve your country.
DUBNER: Treasury Secretary, maybe?
COHN: I’m not gonna say yes, I’m not going to say no. But there’s lots of ways to serve your country.
Sign us up, Big Grundle.
A Free-Trade Democrat in the Trump White House (Ep. 371) [Freakonomics]