Opinion

Gary Cohn's breaking point

Why Trump's tariffs were the final straw for his top economic adviser

You can only push a man so far.

President Trump's top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, on Tuesday announced his intention to resign. Add one more name to the very long list of people who have already fled from the dysfunctional Trump administration. What was the last straw for Cohn? Steel and aluminum tariffs, apparently. While not exactly the most compelling reason for deciding you no longer want to work with Trump, Cohn's move is warranted: Unilaterally imposing significantly higher tariffs on imported steel and aluminum is truly another example of an impulsive Trump decision that is unlikely to pan out well.

Cohn's resignation was apparently preceded by a power struggle between him and more protectionist Trump advisers like top trade adviser Peter Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. According to Kate Kelly and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times, Cohn "had warned last week that he might resign if Trump followed through with the tariffs, which Cohn had lobbied against internally." Trump called the non-bluff, which isn't surprising: Trump has had very few fixed views over the year, but protectionism has always been one of them.

Cohn was well aware of Trump's penchant for economic nationalism, so it's a little odd that this, of all things, was what pushed him to his breaking point. Personally, I would be more offended by, say, Trump firing the FBI director to obstruct the investigation into his campaign's possible collusion with Russian interference into the 2016 election, or his travel ban plainly targeted at Muslims, or his assertion that some of the neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville were "very fine people."

Of course, I never would have joined the administration of an unprecedentedly corrupt and dishonest president who began his ascension within the Republican Party by popularizing the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Africa, and started his nomination campaign by referring to Mexican immigrants as "rapists." It's always been clear that nobody who goes to work for Trump is going to come out looking better. But having swallowed that, some import tariffs are what's going to compel you to leave? It's instructive to know what Cohn's highest priorities are, at least.

While tariffs would be pretty far down on the list of Trump actions that would compel me to submit my resignation, that's not to say they're good policy. You don't have to be a doctrinaire free-trader to doubt the merit of this decision. As Annie Lowrey of The Atlantic observes, while many experts agree that the U.S. "faces unfair competition and artificially low prices that have damaged the domestic steel industry," they generally doubt that "a tariff is the right approach for addressing the problem."

The problems with the tariffs are clear: On the one hand, increasing the price of steel will hurt many other businesses that use the material to produce other goods. And since the tariffs would be unilaterally imposed by the executive under a (false) claim of "national security," they would be particularly likely to spur retaliatory measures that will hurt American businesses that rely on exports. And despite these downsides, the tariff by itself is hardly going to lead to a major rise in steel manufacturing across the rust belt.

Perhaps the bigger problem is that Trump thinks trade wars are a zero-sum game the United States can win, when in fact cycles of retaliation just leave both businesses and ordinary consumers worse off. China and the European Union are capable of inflicting more damage on the U.S. during a trade war than vice versa. It's yet another example of Trump's ignorance leading him to stumble into bad policy choices.

So while "what took you so long?" is the obvious and correct response to Cohn's resignation, he's probably not wrong on the merits here, either. Trump has been a terrible president because he's been an all-too-orthodox Republican, embracing extensive deregulation of business, upper-class tax cuts, and attacks on access to health care. Alas, his first major deviation from the preferences of most congressional Republicans isn't much of an improvement.

More From...

Picture of Scott LemieuxScott Lemieux
Read All
The GOP's bad faith SCOTUS diversions
Amy Coney Barrett.
Opinion

The GOP's bad faith SCOTUS diversions

Stop assuming voters won't care about Trump's taxes
President Trump.
Analysis

Stop assuming voters won't care about Trump's taxes

The long, slow death of the Affordable Care Act
The Supreme Court.
Analysis

The long, slow death of the Affordable Care Act

Stand by your man?
Kavanaugh, McConnell, and Pence
Analysis

Stand by your man?

Recommended

The daily business briefing: August 4, 2021
Protest against eviction moratorium expiration.
Business briefing

The daily business briefing: August 4, 2021

10 things you need to know today: August 4, 2021
Andrew Cuomo
Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: August 4, 2021

How the WASPs won by losing
A WASP.
Samuel Goldman

How the WASPs won by losing

Biden's mediocre eviction moratorium
Biden at the White House
Picture of W. James Antle IIIW. James Antle III

Biden's mediocre eviction moratorium

Most Popular

Tom Brady's 'gentle' roast of Trump at Biden's White House: 'Deeply vicious'?
Tom Brady, Joe Biden
Quotables

Tom Brady's 'gentle' roast of Trump at Biden's White House: 'Deeply vicious'?

Israeli data suggest infected, vaccinated individuals have low chance of spreading COVID-19
Sharon Alroy-Preis.
sunday shows

Israeli data suggest infected, vaccinated individuals have low chance of spreading COVID-19

A tie for gold led to one of the most joyful celebrations at the 2020 Olympics
Gianmarco Tamberi, Mutaz Barshim.
2020 Tokyo Games

A tie for gold led to one of the most joyful celebrations at the 2020 Olympics