In the palace intrigue rattling Donald Trump’s White House, Gary Cohn is the insider the Trump diehards love to hate.
It’s a role to which he’s particularly-well suited: Cohn is the former second-in-command at Goldman Sachs, the world-spanning global financial firm that Trump used as a stand-in for everything he was running against during his presidential campaign.
Now, the Svengali who shaped that campaign and its populist tone, Stephen Bannon, appears to be slipping from his perch on Trump’s shoulder. And Cohn, whose enemies cast him as an elitist, a globalist, and a liberal, is clawing his way up.
“Gary Cohn would be too liberal for the Obama administration,” former Trump advisor Sam Nunberg told Yahoo News. “I don’t know what he’s doing in a Republican White House,” Nunberg said, voicing the sentiment, widely held in pro-Trump circles, that Cohn is an odd match for the expectations set by the Trump regime.
Axios reported earlier this week that Bannon’s supporters call Cohn “Globalist Gary” behind his back, and when texting, refer to him with a globe emoji.
Hired to run the National Economic Council, Cohn’s brief appears to have expanded rapidly. He appeared in a photo released by the White House of Trump watching last week’s Syria strike from Mar-a-Lago alongside his top advisors. And a string of policy switcheroos that Trump announced in mid-April, in which the president appeared to backtrack on a series of long-held positions, have been taken as another sign of the growing influence of Cohn and his allies.
Cohn’s White House clique of wealthy Jewish New Yorkers, alternatively referred to in press accounts as the “Wall Street wing” of the administration or, more simply, as “the Democrats”, includes Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka Trump.
Another ally, Dina Powell, is a fellow Goldman Sachs alumna who now serves on the National Security Council.
Their opponent is Bannon, the nationalist ideologue and former CEO of Breitbart News. Though he, too, once worked at Goldman Sachs, Bannon now defines himself in opposition to the elite internationalism that the firm has come to represent.
A story last week in Vanity Fair painted an evocative picture: Both Bannon and Cohn work late into the night every evening, sitting in White House offices across the hall from each other. “It’s a nightly struggle for Trump’s ear,” Vanity Fair’s Emily Jane Fox wrote.
The brewing fight has made Cohn a target in the reaches of the right where Bannon draws his support. The influential conservative talk radio host Mark Levin tweeted last week that Cohn, Kushner and Powell are “big-government liberals tightening their hold on the White House.”
While Cohn’s previous job as is about as elite as they come, his background, like Bannon’s, is relatively modest. The grandson of Jewish immigrants in Cleveland, Cohn’s family ran an electrical business, and Cohn worked in the family’s warehouse in high school.
Cohn’s trajectory from dyslexic problem-child to Goldman master of the universe is a much-retold story, featured in a Malcolm Gladwell book and in countless profiles. While working in sales for U.S. Steel after college, Cohn got himself in the door of a commodities trading firm by overstating his credentials to a trader he shared a taxicab with. He worked his way through the bottom rungs of the financial services industry, first as a runner on a trading floor, before eventually making his way to Goldman Sachs.
Cohn joined the firm in 1990, and by 1996 was leading Goldman’s commodities business worldwide. He was promoted to Goldman’s second-in-command position in 2006, sharing the role with Jon Winkelried. Both of the men received $25 million bonuses that year. In 2010, in the wake of the financial crisis, Winkelried left the firm, leaving Cohn alone in the position of Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s top deputy.
Cohn stalled out there, just inches from the apex of Wall Street power. Blankfein has showed no signs of being willing to hang up his spurs, and even if he were, it’s not clear that Cohn would succeed him. A 2011 profile in Bloomberg laid out how Cohn’s “abrasive style” and “appetite for risk” made him an unlikely choice for Goldman’s top spot.
“Cohn, 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, can be intimidating,” the Bloomberg reporters wrote. “He would sometimes hike up one leg, plant his foot on a trader’s desk, his thigh close to the employee’s face, and ask how markets were doing.”
Instead of sticking it out at Goldman, Cohn took a route much-traveled by top Goldman executives before him, like New Jersey Senator John Corzine and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, among others, and headed to Washington. Cohn accepted a position as Trump’s National Economic Council director in January.
Cohn was one of a class of Goldman Sachs executives, many of them Jewish, who took senior positions in the Trump administration. It was a jarring shift after the final stages of the Trump campaign, when Trump ran an advertisement, widely panned as anti-Semitic, in which “globalists” were condemned in ominous tones, over images of powerful Jews, including Cohn’s former boss, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.
With the so-called globalists on the ascent at the White House, longtime Trump stalwarts are scratching their heads. “No one elected the president so Gary Cohn could go to Washington,” Sam Nunberg, the former Trump advisor, told the New York Times.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.