WASHINGTON — Top White House economic adviser Gary Cohn publicly criticized President Donald Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va., and reportedly came close to resigning over it.
In his first public comments on the matter, Cohn told the Financial Times in an interview published Friday that the Trump administration “can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning” white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
Cohn, who is Jewish, plays a key role in the administration and his departure would be a blow to Trump’s economic agenda. In addition to directing the White House National Economic Council, the former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executive is helping lead the administration’s push to overhaul the tax code.
Trump also has said he’s considering nominating Cohn to chair the Federal Reserve. The four-year term of Fed Chairwoman Janet L. Yellen expires in February.
Cohn stood by Trump’s side during an impromptu news conference in New York last week in which the president said there were “some very fine people” marching alongside neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.
Cohn said he had “come under enormous pressure both to resign and to remain in my current position.”
The New York Times reported Friday that Cohn had seriously considered resigning and even drafted a resignation letter, citing two unnamed people familiar with the draft.
But Cohn said he was not leaving his White House job.
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“As a patriotic American, I am reluctant to leave my post as director of the National Economic Council because I feel a duty to fulfill my commitment to work on behalf of the American people,” Cohn told the Financial Times.
“But I also feel compelled to voice my distress over the events of the last two weeks,” he said.
“As a Jewish American, I will not allow neo-Nazis ranting, ‘Jews will not replace us’ to cause this Jew to leave his job,” Cohn said. “I feel deep empathy for all who have been targeted by these hate groups. We must all unite together against them.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House was not blindsided by Cohn’s comments.
“Gary has not held back how he feels about this situation. He’s been very open and honest,” Sanders said. “So I don’t think anyone was surprised by the comments.”
But Sanders also defended Trump’s response to Charlottesville.
“The president’s been very outspoken in his condemnation of racism, of bigotry, of hate of all forms,” she said. “But I think as long as those things exist, there’s always more that we can do.”
Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, who like Cohn is Jewish and was at Trump’s side when he made his controversial comments last week, also has resisted calls to resign.
In a statement Sunday, Mnuchin said, “I strongly condemn the actions of those filled with hate and with the intent to harm others.” But unlike Cohn, Mnuchin publicly defended Trump’s response to the violence.
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Asked Friday if he associated himself with Cohn’s criticism of Trump, Mnuchin referred back to his Sunday statement.
Mnuchin said he never considered stepping down and that he and Cohn were committed to working on tax reform.
“Under no circumstances was I going to resign,” Mnuchin told reporters during a White House briefing.
“Gary and I have known each other for 20 years. ... his No. 1 focus is absolutely working on tax reform with me and getting tax reform done,” Mnuchin said. “Gary’s committed to be here and couldn’t be more excited about that.”
Larry Kudlow, who served as an informal economic adviser to Trump’s campaign, praised Cohn’s comments, saying on Twitter that he deserved “high marks” for saying the administration had to do better in condemning white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
“Principles matter,” Kudlow tweeted.
But Shawn Sebastian, co-chair of Fed Up, a coalition of labor, community and liberal activist groups that wants the Fed to enact pro-worker policies, said Cohn should resign and back Yellen’s renomination.
“It has taken Gary Cohn almost two weeks to find the backbone to gently criticize Trump’s apologism for white supremacists, the KKK and neo-Nazis,” Sebastian said. “Cohn has not demonstrated the character, independence, or leadership to serve as Fed chair.”