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Gary Cohn resigning as top White House economic adviser

Gary Cohn left Goldman Sachs, where he was president and chief operating officer, to join the White House in 2017. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

The White House National Economic Council director had differences with the president over tariffs.

Updated

Gary Cohn is resigning as National Economic Council director amid a battle over tariffs within the Trump administration, the White House said Tuesday.

“It has been an honor to serve my country and enact pro-growth economic policies to benefit the American people, in particular the passage of historic tax reform,” Cohn said in a statement provided by the White House. “I am grateful to the President for giving me this opportunity and wish him and the Administration great success in the future.”

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Cohn, who left his post as president and chief operating officer at Goldman Sachs to join the White House in 2017, had urged Trump not to impose steep tariffs. He was widely seen as likely to exit after Trump announced plans to impose a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports.

His next steps are unclear. A person familiar with Cohn’s thinking said he had not ruled out a return to Wall Street.

Cohn’s decision caps an uneven tenure in the White House. He almost quit his job last year over the president’s comments about a white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, even drafting resignation letters. But he stayed, and he landed a policy victory with the passage late last year of the Republican tax plan.

Cohn told staff that he was resigning during a meeting late Tuesday afternoon, according to a White House official who was there. The person said Cohn didn’t give a clear indication of his reasoning for departing but added that it was no secret among NEC officials that Cohn’s disagreement with the president over the tariff proposal precipitated his exit.

“We weren’t necessarily bowled over by the news because we knew it was going to happen at some point,” the official said. “But it happened a little more quickly than we thought.”

Cohn’s resignation came after Trump repeatedly sought to downplay reports of discord in his administration, tweeting earlier Tuesday that claims of “chaos in the White House” were “fake news.” But Trump also alluded to looming changes to West Wing personnel, saying, “I still have some people that I want to change (always seeking perfection).”

Several high-profile White House staffers have left or announced plans to leave, including communications director Hope Hicks and Dina Powell, a fellow Goldman Sachs alum who became deputy national security adviser.

Pressed on the matter during a press conference with the Swedish prime minister, Trump said there was “tremendous energy” in the White House and that “many, many people want every single job.”

“Believe me, everybody wants to work in the White House. They all want a piece of that Oval Office; they want a piece of the West Wing,” Trump told reporters. “And not only in terms of it looks great on their résumé; it’s just a great place to work.”

During the summit Tuesday, Trump again voiced his intention to impose new tariffs, even though the idea has been widely criticized by Republicans and by free-trade supporters in the administration.

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Cohn and his backers launched a last-ditch effort to change Trump’s mind, planning a White House meeting for Thursday with executives from industries likely to be hurt by big tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.

The administration appears to still be working through the details of the tariffs. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday that Canada and Mexico could be carved out, depending on how trade talks go with those countries. One White House official said Cohn’s exit did not mean the details of tariff proposal were “set in stone.”

Trump told reporters Tuesday that the administration had “no choice” but to move forward, even after European leaders vowed to respond with their own punitive economic measures against the U.S. “I am convinced that increased tariffs will hurt us all in the long run,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said at the press conference.

Cohn had been discussing leaving for several weeks, the White House said, adding that he would leave in the next few weeks. The person familiar with Cohn’s thinking said he will remain in the administration for at least another week to continue to work on Trump’s tariffs proposal.

Though Cohn has not yet determined what his next steps will be, the person said, several Fortune 500 companies have reached out to him.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who Cohn worked under during his time at the company, reacted to news of the resignation by praising his work in the administration.

“Gary Cohn deserves credit for serving his country in a first class way,” Blankfein tweeted. “I’m sure I join many others who are disappointed to see him leave.”

Matthew Nussbaum and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.

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