Former White House economic adviser Gary Cohn reached a tentative agreement with President Donald Trump to become his CIA director — but lost out on the role after Trump abruptly changed his mind.
Cohn, who resigned in early March amid a fight over tariffs, told associates at the time that he would consider rejoining the administration if Trump called and offered him “the right big job,” but he did not elaborate on what that job would be. In fact, according to three people close to the president, Cohn had already talked with Trump about taking the helm of the CIA, a job that suddenly opened up last week when Trump nominated his spy chief, Mike Pompeo, to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.
Trump, these people said, informally offered Cohn the position, telling him he thought he’d be a good fit for the job, and Cohn had agreed to take it. Trump long ago decided that Pompeo would replace Tillerson as secretary of state, and the president in recent weeks had bounced the idea of sending Cohn to the CIA off his closest external advisers. It is unclear why Trump decided to change course at the last minute, but last week he named Pompeo’s deputy Gina Haspel to the CIA role instead.
Two senior administration officials acknowledged that Trump discussed alternative positions with Cohn. But they did not specify the position and they said that the president didn’t extend a formal offer.
Trump made clear his desire for Cohn to return in his public goodbye to the former Goldman Sachs executive, a Democrat who served Trump as director of the National Economic Council. In his final public goodbye, he said of Cohn. “He’s going to go out, make another couple hundred million, and then he’s going to maybe come back.”
“You’re going to come back right?” the president asked.
The episode offers a window into the president’s decision-making a little over a year into his tenure. While he is growing more comfortable in the job, willing to follow his instincts and make unorthodox personnel choices, his decisions remain entirely unpredictable, leaving even his most senior advisers in a state of perpetual uncertainty.
Cohn has no background in intelligence, but told associates he was interested both in running the CIA or, potentially, in serving as secretary of state. He was at one point the leading candidate to be chair of the Federal Reserve, but his standing cooled after he criticized the president’s equivocal response to a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year.
While Cohn has had multiple inquiries by private sector companies, he has not lined up his next job.
Cohn’s near-miss at the CIA came in the midst of turmoil across the administration. The president remains unhappy with David Shulkin, his Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He announced last week that Larry Kudlow, the CNBC commentator and former Reagan economic adviser, would replace Cohn at the National Economic Council.
Cohn and the president began discussing other possible senior jobs in the administration when the NEC chair told Trump two months ago about his plans to resign, according to the two senior White House officials. Those discussions never reached the point of a formal offer, these people said, and Cohn announced on March 6 that he would leave the White House.
After the White House announced Cohn’s resignation, the president and Cohn continued having substantial discussions about other positions, the officials said. The officials declined to say which jobs were discussed and would not confirm or deny that CIA director was one of the possibilities.
On March 13, Trump announced that he would nominate Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman, to replace Tillerson. He tapped Haspel, a former George W. Bush administration official, to replace Pompeo as head of the spy agency.
One senior official said that while discussions between Cohn and Trump have not yet worked out, the former Goldman president may still rejoin the administration at some point: “As the president made clear, he and Gary continue to have a strong relationship and Gary could eventually return to serve in another senior role in the administration,” the official said.
“This is Gary Cohn’s last meeting of the Cabinet, with the Cabinet, and he’s been terrific,” Trump said in his farewell to his NEC director. “He may be a globalist, but I still like him. He's seriously a globalist, there's no question. But you know what? In his own way he’s a nationalist because he loves this country.”