The Pros and Cohns of Protectionism

Even on a Tuesday day when a pornographic video performer called Stormy Daniels filed a lawsuit against President Donald Trump, the departure of National Economic Council director Gary Cohn was the biggest news out of the White House. The frequent comings and goings of Trump administration officials are usually newsworthy only because of the colorful characters involved and the chaotic situation they represent, but in Cohn’s case it could have serious consequences.
Cohn was one of economic advisers who tried to talk Trump out of imposing the steep steel and aluminum tariffs that were announced last week, as well as the rest of the protectionist agenda Trump has proposed, and his resignation suggests that talking Trump out of such cockamamie ideas is beyond his ability. The congressional Republican leadership also tried persuade Trump to reconsider, and although Trump is invoking national security reasons for imposing the tariffs so did his Defense Secretary and Secretary of State, as well as some of most stalwart defenders in the conservative media, so it appears that no one’s up to the task.
Cohn’s continued role in the White House gave faint hope to the free-traders, though, and his exit suggests the fight is over. His resignation wasn’t announced until the stock markets had closed for the day, but we expect the news will be met glumly when they open again today. Except for the aluminum and steel makers and a few other unionized industries hoping for similar protection from foreign competition, pretty much everyone is planning to pay more for aluminum and steel and try to pass the hit along the supply chain and down to the end consumer, steeling themselves for the inevitable retaliatory tariffs on American exports by friends and foes alike, and worrying what comes after that.
Cohn and the other sensible administration officials and the congressional Republican leadership and the conservative media defenders should have seen it coming all along, though, as well as all those steel-and-aluminum buying companies and export industries and other critics. Trump made quite clear during his seemingly quixotic campaign that he intended on waging a global trade war, and although he spouted off a lot of crazy talk that no one took seriously he was quite clearly sincere in about this particular threat. He’d been publicly critical of America’s trade with the rest of the world since President Ronald Reagan’s administration, claimed that America had been taken advantage of in every foreign relation since the Marshall Plan of President Harry Truman, and offered himself as the artful dealmaker who alone could set things right. Over the years Trump has been all over the place on abortion and immigration and “transgender rights” and almost anything else in the news — we like to joke that he’s taken more positions than Stormy Daniels — but he has never once wavered from a core conviction that he alone could renegotiate the entire world economy to America’s rightful advantage.
Although an estimable fellow, Cohn was never going to talk Trump out of this delusion. Cohn was always a controversial pick, with critics to both the left and right, and ill-suited to any role in Trump’s reality show. His only previous employer was at the too-big-to-fail Goldman-Sachs investment bank, where he rose through the ranks to a top spot, and the conspiracy theorizing sorts of liberals and conservatives have long noticed that Goldman Sachs has landed a noticeable number of former executives in both Democratic and Republican administrations for an noticeably long time, so that left him vulnerable. The stock markets and other centrist types were slightly reassured that at least Trump honored some of the time-honored presidential traditions, and held out hope Con would restrain Trump’s populist impulses, but a buttoned-down riser-through-the-corporate ranks has never prevailed in any reality show ever aired.
Cohn lasted on the reality show island longer than most of us expected, given all the anti-globalist conspiracy theorists who got a vote in each week’s cliff-hanging exile. He outlasted the defiantly nationalist chief strategist Steve Bannon, oh-so loyal and kinda cute communications director Hope Hicks, onetime establishment whipping boy and later chief of staff Reince Priebus, currently under-indictment former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, that Omarosa woman who held some job or another before returning to a lesser-rated reality, along with countless others can’t quite recall. We think he did some good along the way, too.
As an observant Jew with universal human values, Cohn reportedly considered resigning after Trump insisted there were some “very fine people” marching alongside the neo-Nazis at a deadly rally in Virginia, and although he stayed on he helped fuel the public’s indignation. By sticking around he helped he shape and shepherd trough the Congress a tax bill that so far seems one the best things the Trump administration has done, and he’s also played a role in all the deregulation that has so far worked out well enough. He couldn’t talk Trump out of his crazy trade war, but at least his resignation might spook the stock markets and fuel the public’s indignation and give those congressional Republican leaders and other critics some chance of restraining the president’s populist impulses.
We’ll hope for the best for Cohn and all the rest of us, including that unfortunate visiting Swedish Prime Minister who wound up standing next to Trump during a joint news conference where both the American and Swedish press were asking all sorts of pointed questions about potential trade wars and the ongoing “Russia thing.” The video would have fed all the snarky late comics’ monologues if not for the lawsuit by the porn star, but even those easy and smutty jokes were among the first casualties of the trade war.

— Bud Norman

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