GOP alarm is reaching new heights with Gary Cohn’s departure from the White House, as congressional Republicans lose a key check on Donald Trump’s proclivity for protectionism.
The outgoing economic adviser to Trump is one of Hill Republicans’ most accessible conduits to the White House. He’s worked closely with them on tax reform, banking deregulation and, most critically, pushing back against new tariffs — an argument that Cohn clearly lost.
Republican leaders are still pushing to limit the scope of new tariffs on aluminum and steel. But at a crucial moment in their fight against a president from their own party, they’re about to be down a key ally. And with no prominent free traders left in the White House, Republicans worry Trump might take even more drastic measures like withdrawing from NAFTA and end up hobbling the economy in an election year.
“He’s got a sound and needed voice at the White House to counter some of the other voices and I hate to see him leave,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “Importantly, he was around to be whispering in the president’s ear. And he won’t be now.”
“He’s a voice of reason on economic issues and a big picture guy who paid a lot of attention to what some of these policy decisions and implications are for the larger economy,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “I don’t know who replaces that.”
That very question — who will replace Cohn? — perplexed a group of House conservatives during a closed-door Republican Study Committee meeting Wednesday. RSC Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.) had invited House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) to discuss the proposed tariffs with the group, and lawmakers fretted that they have no one to turn to in the West Wing to talk Trump down.
"We need an advocate in 'the circle,' because it seems like the people who are influencing Trump right now are more pro-tariff, like Peter Navarro," Walker said, recounting the meeting. Navarro is one of Trump's top trade officials and helped convince the president to embrace his hawkish views on trade. On Wednesday afternoon, the RSC released a formal statement finding that "tariffs on imported goods are a tax."
In interviews with a half-dozen Republicans in the aftermath of Cohn’s resignation announcement, the angst in the Republican Party was plain: If the tariffs get out of hand, a trade war could commence and cripple the U.S. economy as well as the GOP’s electoral prospects.
As Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) deadpanned, “A depression wouldn’t be a good thing.”
“I certainly agreed with him with his stance on the tariff issue, so I hate to him go as an adviser,” Johnson said. He worries that the GOP’s efforts to boost the economy through deregulation and tax cuts could be undone in a matter of days. “I’d hate to see that undermined by the uncertainty by potential trade wars. I don’t see how people win trade wars.”
Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who has been personally trying to dissuade Trump from instituting new tariffs, even said he thinks he might be able to convince Cohn to change his mind and stay.
“It’s a bad thing, because he’s one of the best people I’ve seen in government the whole time I’ve been here,” Hatch said. “I actually think we might be able to get him back.”
That Republicans are now begging for Cohn to stay represents a remarkable shift. Many in the GOP viewed Cohn, a registered Democrat, with skepticism when Trump tapped him to lead the National Economic Council last January. Now, they view him as an angel on Trump’s right shoulder countering an economic protectionist devil — Navarro — on the left.
But Hatch’s effort to convince Cohn to stay seems like a long shot. And without Cohn, there is no obvious avenue for the GOP’s myriad free traders to turn. Cohn was a crucial asset for the White House’s work with Capitol Hill, easy to reach and easy to negotiate with, according to Republican aides.
Cohn also was one of the few Trump officials that actually did have some sway with the minority party.
“He’s been the voice of reason in the administration and I’m sad to see him go,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).
In Cohn’s place, Republicans are concerned that Navarro’s influence will become more acutely felt as the president tries to renegotiate NAFTA. Thune said Navarro is giving Trump “bad advice.”
“I’m not a fan of his policies. I think he’s a protectionist,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has been leading the effort on Capitol Hill to keep the United States in NAFTA.
Some Republicans are hoping there are still a few voices inside the administration to provide a counterweight to Navarro, not to mention Trump, who’s also a longtime trade skeptic.
“I have a lot of confidence in [budget chief] Mick Mulvany,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) told MSNBC when asked about any concerns he has following Cohn’s departure. “Mick used to be a free-trader.”
In an interview in the Capitol Wednesday, Republican Rep. Peter King of New York tried to list a few potential replacements for Cohn but seemed to be unsatisfied with his own answers other than Larry Kudlow, a free-market economist and TV personality.
“I would have said [Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared] Kushner, but I don’t know,” King said. Treasury Secretary Steven “Mnuchin? He seems to be going out of his way to talk about NAFTA, how they could change the tariffs for Canada and Mexico. He might be more sympathetic. I don’t know. I’m trying to think. Mick Mulvaney?”
For now, Republican senators have been taking their views on trade to Chief of Staff John Kelly, Thune said, but that might not be enough to persuade Trump. If the party wants to have any hope of limiting the scope of Trump’s oft-threatened trade war without the help of Cohn, it might have to be through the president himself.
“The president’s also very accessible. He’s actually in some ways easier to get ahold of” than Cohn, Corker said. “So if you want to voice something, you can voice it directly to him.”