by Gary Rivlin, and Michael Hudson, The Intercept:
STEVE BANNON was in the room the day Donald Trump first fell for Gary Cohn. So were Reince Priebus, Jared Kushner, and Trump’s pick for secretary of Treasury, Steve Mnuchin. It was the end of November, three weeks after Trump’s improbable victory, and Cohn, then still the president of Goldman Sachs, was at Trump Tower presumably at the invitation of Kushner, with whom he was friendly. Cohn was there to offer his views about jobs and the economy. But, like the man he was there to meet, he was at heart a salesman.
On the campaign trail, Trump had spoken often about the importance of investing in infrastructure. Yet the president-elect had apparently failed to appreciate that the government would need to come up with hundreds of billions of dollars to fund his plans. Cohn, brash and bold, wired to attack any moneymaking opportunity, pitched a fix that would put Wall Street firms at the center: Private-industry partners could help infrastructure get fixed, saving the federal government from going deeper into debt. The way the moment was captured by the New York Times, among other publications, Trump was dumbfounded. “Is this true?” he asked. Was a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan likely to increase the deficit by a trillion dollars? Confronted by nodding heads, an unhappy president-elect said, “Why did I have to wait to have this guy tell me?”
Within two weeks, the transition team announced that Cohn would take over as director of the president’s National Economic Council.
1GOLDMAN ALWAYS WINS
GOLDMAN SACHS had been a favorite cudgel for candidate Trump — the symbol of a government that favors Wall Street over its citizenry. Trump proclaimed that Hillary Clinton was in the firm’s pockets, as was Ted Cruz. It was Goldman Sachs that Trump singled out when he railed against a system rigged in favor of the global elite — one that “robbed our working class, stripped our country of wealth, and put money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” Cohn, as president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs, had been at the heart of it all. Aggressive and relentless, a former aluminum siding salesman and commodities broker with a nose for making money, Cohn had turned Goldman’s sleepy home loan unit into what a Senate staffer called “one of the largest mortgage trading desks in the world.” There, he aggressively pushed his sales team to sell mortgage-backed securities to unaware investors even as he watched over “the big short,” Goldman’s decision to bet billions of dollars that the market would collapse.
Now Cohn would be coordinating economic policy for the populist president.
The conflicts between the two men were striking. Cohn ran a giant investment bank with offices in financial capitals around the globe, one deeply committed to a world with few economic borders. Trump’s nationalist campaign contradicted everything Goldman Sachs and its top executives represented on the global stage.
Trump raged against “offshoring” by American companies during the 2016 campaign. He even threatened “retribution,” a 35 percent tariff on any goods imported into the United States by a company that had moved jobs overseas. But Cohn laid out Goldman’s very different view of offshoring at an investor conference in Naples, Florida, in November. There, Cohn explained unapologetically that Goldman had offshored its back-office staff, including payroll and IT, to Bangalore, India, now home to the firm’s largest office outside New York City: “We hire people there because they work for cents on the dollar versus what people work for in the United States.”
Candidate Trump promised to create millions of new jobs, vowing to be “the greatest jobs president that God ever created.” Cohn, as Goldman Sachs’s president and COO, oversaw the firm’s mergers and acquisitions business that had, over the previous three years, led to the loss of at least 22,000 U.S. jobs, according to a study by two advocacy groups. Early in his candidacy, Trump described as “disgusting” Pfizer’s decision to buy a smaller Irish competitor in order to execute a “corporate inversion,” a maneuver in which a U.S. company moves its headquarters overseas to reduce its tax burden. The Pfizer deal ultimately fell through. But in 2016, in the heat of the campaign, Goldman advised on a megadeal that saw Johnson Controls, a Fortune 500 company based in Milwaukee, buy the Ireland-based Tyco International with the same goal. A few months later, with Goldman’s help, Johnson Controls had executed its inversion.
With Cohn’s appointment, Trump now had three Goldman Sachs alums in top positions inside his administration: Steve Bannon, who was a vice president at Goldman when he left the firm in 1990, as chief strategist, and Steve Mnuchin, who had spent 17 years at Goldman, as Treasury secretary. And there were more to come. A few weeks later, another Goldman partner, Dina Powell, joined the White House as a senior counselor for economic initiatives. Goldman was a longtime client of Jay Clayton, Trump’s choice to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission; Clayton had represented Goldman after the 2008 financial crisis, and his wife Gretchen worked there as a wealth management adviser. And there was the brief, colorful tenure of Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director: Scaramucci had been a vice president at Goldman Sachs before leaving to co-found his own investment company.
Even before Scaramucci, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., had joked that enough Goldman alum were working for the Trump administration to open a branch office in the White House.
“There was a devastating financial crisis just over eight years ago,” Warren said. “Goldman Sachs was at the heart of that crisis. The idea that the president is now going to turn over the country’s economic policy to a senior Goldman executive turns my stomach.” Prior administrations often had one or two people from Goldman serving in top positions. George W. Bush at one point had three. At its peak, the Trump administration effectively had six.
Earlier this summer, Trump boasted about his team of economic advisers at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “This is the president of Goldman Sachs. Smart,” Trump said. “Having him represent us! He went from massive paydays to peanuts.”
Trump waved off anyone who might question his decision to rely on the very people he had demonized. “Somebody said, ‘Why did you appoint a rich person to be in charge of the economy?’ … I said: ‘Because that’s the kind of thinking we want.’” He needed “great, brilliant business minds … so the world doesn’t take advantage of us.” How else could he get the job done? “I love all people, rich or poor, but in those particular positions, I just don’t want a poor person.”
“Does that make sense?” Trump asked. The crowd cheered.
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