Gary Rivlin, Michael Hudson
Part 6 - TROJAN HORSE
There’s ultimately no great mystery why Donald Trump selected Gary Cohn for a top post in his administration, despite his angry rhetoric about Goldman Sachs. There’s the high regard the president holds for anyone who is rich — and the instant legitimacy Cohn conferred upon the administration within business circles. Cohn’s appointment reassured bond markets about the unpredictable new president and lent his administration credibility it lacked among Fortune 100 CEOs, none of whom had donated to his campaign. Ego may also have played a role. Goldman Sachs would never do business with Trump, the developer who resorted to foreign banks and second-tier lenders to bankroll his projects. Now Goldman’s president would be among those serving in his royal court.
Who can say precisely why Cohn, a Democrat, said yes when Trump asked him to be his top economic aide? No doubt Cohn has been asking himself that question in recent weeks. But he’d hit a ceiling at Goldman Sachs. In September 2015, Goldman announced that Blankfein had lymphoma, ramping up speculation that Cohn would take over the firm. Yet four months later, after undergoing chemotherapy, Blankfein was back in his office and plainly not going anywhere. Cohn was 56 years old when he was invited to Trump Tower. An influential job inside the White House meant a face-saving exit — and one offering a huge financial advantage.
Trump spoke of the great financial price Cohn paid to join him in the White House during his speech in Cedar Rapids. But something like the opposite was true. A huge amount of Cohn’s wealth was tied up in Goldman stock. By entering government, he could sell his stake in the firm to comply with federal ethics laws. That way he could diversify his holdings and avoid roughly $50 million in capital gains taxes — at least until he sold the replacement assets.
A job in the White House might also prove an outlet for his frustrations with politicians and regulators intent on reining in the worst impulses of Wall Street. Trump was Trump, but he had also vowed to dismantle financial reform. “Dodd-Frank has made it impossible for bankers to function,” Trump said during the campaign. The new president had the potential to serve as a vessel for Goldman’s corporate interests.
“Maybe the one thing that holds this administration together is a belief that markets know best, and the least regulation is the best regulation,” said Dennis Kelleher of Better Markets. “Goldman’s interests fit with that very nicely.”
Trump had given Steve Mnuchin, his campaign finance chair, the grander title. But taking over as Treasury secretary meant being confirmed by the Senate. Mnuchin’s confirmation vote was delayed after it was revealed that he’d neglected to list $95 million in assets (including homes in New York, Los Angeles, and the Hamptons) on his Senate Finance Committee disclosure forms and failed to disclose his ties to an offshore hedge fund registered in the Cayman Islands. Mnuchin was not confirmed until mid-February. The president’s pick for commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, a financier who had bailed out several of Trump’s casinos a few decades earlier, was not confirmed until the end of February.
As a presidential aide, Cohn did not need Senate approval. He was part of the skeletal crew that arrived at the White House on day one, giving him a critical head start on wielding his clout and cultivating his relationship with the new president. At that point, Trump was summoning Cohn to the Oval Office for impromptu meetings as many as five times a day.
In early February, Trump signed an executive order giving his Treasury secretary 120 days to give him a hit list of regulations the administration could eliminate. But with Mnuchin yet to be confirmed, the task appeared to land in Cohn’s eager hands. He was standing at the president’s shoulder when Trump said, “We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank.” Shares in Goldman Sachs, which had jumped by 28 percent after the election, rose another $6 a share that day. Soon Cohn was coordinating Trump’s plans not only for rolling back regulations, but also for creating jobs and slashing taxes. He met with a health care specialist, along with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders, to discuss alternatives to the Affordable Care Act.
Proximity is power inside any White House, especially in this one, where policy often seems shaped by Trump’s last conversation. Treasury is several blocks away, while Cohn’s office was in the West Wing, directly across the hall from Bannon’s. Operating within a chaotic administration, Cohn was reportedly energized and focused, working around the clock. Cohn is a tenacious practitioner who, after ascending to the heights of Goldman Sachs, could teach a master class on the art of seizing a leadership vacuum and building alliances. On day 39 of the new administration, the White House sent out a press release introducing the “best-in-class team” Cohn had assembled “to drive President Trump’s bold plan for job creation and economic growth.” The 13 advisers included familiar figures who had worked for George W. Bush or his father, but they also included at least three former lobbyists so conflicted they would need an ethics waiver to work in the White House. For instance, Michael Catanzaro, the man Cohn chose to oversee energy policy, was until last year a lobbyist for such oil, gas, and coal companies as Devon Energy and Talen Energy. Shahira Knight had been a lobbyist for Fidelity, the mutual fund giant, before joining Cohn’s team.
Cohn’s strategy in those early months was to make himself indispensable to the new president. Cohn emerged as one of the few people around Trump comfortable interrupting him during a meeting or openly disagreeing on points of policy. The New York Times reported that Trump often turned to Cohn during a meeting and asked him directly, “What do you want to do?” Early on, Trump referred to Cohn as “one of my geniuses” — a quote Reuters attributed to a “source close to Cohn.”
Soon, major media were painting Cohn as a leading centrist inside the Trump White House because he had staked out positions on immigration, international alliances, and global warming at odds with Bannon’s hard-right nationalism. Bannon and his allies only bolstered this narrative by characterizing “Carbon Tax Cohn” and his allies, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, as interlopers — “the Democrats,” as some inside the White House called them. “Within Trump’s Inner Circle, a Moderate Voice Captures the President’s Ear,” read the headline of a Cohn profile in the Washington Post.
“Led by Gary Cohn and Dina Powell — two former Goldman Sachs executives often aligned with Trump’s elder daughter and his son-in-law — the group and its broad network of allies are the targets of suspicion, loathing and jealousy from their more ideological West Wing colleagues,” the Washington Post reported. Fueling the rage of the ideologues, Cohn and his allies were largely winning. Trump dropped Bannon from the National Security Council and elevated Powell to deputy national security adviser. When, after Charlottesville, false reports leaked that Cohn was so disgusted with the president he was resigning, blue-chip stocks slid down. Instead, Bannon was out. Cohn, despite reports that he invoked Trump’s wrath for critical remarks to the Financial Times, was still in and expected to deliver the president a win on corporate taxes.
On the day it was announced that he was joining the Trump administration, Cohn said on a goodbye podcast for Goldman Sachs, “You look at the size of our capital. You look at the size of our balance sheet. You look at the size of our people — it’s just enormous.” More than $40 billion had flowed into the bank in 2016, bringing the bank’s assets under management to a record $1.38 trillion. That meant pressure to find ways to put that money to work — an enormous challenge if regulators finally shut down Goldman’s prop trading arm.
How exactly could Cohn recuse himself from matters involving Goldman when almost every aspect of his job has the potential to either grow Goldman’s profits and inflate its stock price — or tank them both?
“To the extent Goldman Sachs is a direct party in a matter, Gary will recuse himself,” a source familiar with the situation said. But, the source added, “As NEC director, Gary is going to touch on matters on the day-to-day economy as a whole and Goldman Sachs is a participant in the economy, thus Gary will indirectly touch on things that affect Goldman Sachs along with other banks and institutions.”
Yet rather than publicly recuse himself on attempts to undo Dodd-Frank, Cohn has led the charge from inside the White House. On that matter, Cohn is a walking, talking conflict of interest.
While at Goldman, Cohn had personally met with officials at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to discuss the derivatives reform plank of Dodd-Frank, an arena in which Goldman is a dominant player. He had taken issue with rules imposed by Dodd-Frank that require banks to keep more capital on hand. Requiring banks to hold more money in reserve made them “unequivocally” safer than before 2008, he said in a 2015 interview while still Goldman’s president, but he complained that Goldman was now able to lend less money, hurting profits. And then there’s the Volcker Rule. Cohn, while still president of the firm, had traveled to D.C. at least twice to personally lobby regulators about its implementation.
These days, it can be hard to tell whether Cohn is speaking as a high-ranking White House official or a former Goldman Sachs executive.
In the wake of Trump’s February call for a rollback in financial regulations, Cohn vowed in an interview with Bloomberg TV, “We’re going to attack all aspects of Dodd-Frank.” The first example he gave: the Volcker Rule, which he cast as harmful to the country’s competitive advantage. In an interview that same day with Fox Business, he homed in on another Goldman obsession: Dodd-Frank’s capital requirements. “Banks are forced to hoard money because they are forced to hoard capital, and they can’t take any risks,” he said. Mortgage, auto, credit card lending, and commercial lending are all up since 2010. Yet Cohn told Fox viewers, “We need to get banks back in the lending business, that’s our No. 1 objective.”
Roy Smith, a former Goldman partner now teaching at the NYU Stern School of Business, argues that Cohn should avoid the administration’s effort to unwind Dodd-Frank altogether, but “at a very minimum he has to excuse himself whenever the discussion turns to Volcker.” But Smith said he has trouble imagining Cohn leaving the room when Volcker comes up. “The hard part for someone like Cohn is that he knows where all the pain points are with Volcker and other parts of Dodd-Frank,” Smith said. “His every instinct would be to get involved.”
Beyond deregulation, two other pillars of Trump’s economic plan — cutting taxes and investing in infrastructure — would have dramatic impacts on Goldman’s bottom line.
Thanks to loopholes, many Fortune 500 corporations pay little or no corporate income tax at all. By contrast, Goldman Sachs typically pays taxes near the official 35 percent federal tax rate. In 2014, for instance, Goldman paid $3.9 billion in taxes on profits of $12.4 billion, or 31 percent. Last year, the firm’s tax bill was $2.7 billion on profits of $10.3 billion, or 28 percent. In that same Fox Business interview, Cohn said that “lower corporate taxes” was the White House’s “starting point” on tax reform; cuts to personal income taxes were a secondary concern.
Under the plan Cohn and Mnuchin announced last spring, what Cohn called “one of the biggest tax cuts in the American history,” corporate taxes would be capped at 15 percent. If Cohn succeeds, Goldman will save massive sums: At that rate, Goldman would have paid $2 billion less in taxes in 2014, $1.4 billion less in 2015, and $1.4 billion less in 2016. The Koch brothers’ network of political groups has already spent millions of dollars to promote the proposal. Even Blankfein, who the Trump campaign singled out in the commercial it ran in the final days of the campaign, acknowledged in a voicemail to employees that Trump’s commitment to tax cuts, deregulation, and infrastructure “will be good for our clients and our firm.”
The details of the president’s “$1 trillion” infrastructure plan are similarly favorable to Goldman. As laid out in the administration’s 2018 budget, the government would spend only $200 billion on infrastructure over the coming decade. By structuring “that funding to incentivize additional non-Federal funding” — tax breaks and deals that privatize roads, bridges, and airports — the government could take credit for “at least $1 trillion in total infrastructure spending,” the budget reads.
It was as if Cohn were still channeling his role as a leader of Goldman Sachs when, at the White House in May, he offered this advice to executives: “We say, ‘Hey, take a project you have right now, sell it off, privatize it, we know it will get maintained, and we’ll reward you for privatizing it.’” “The bigger the thing you privatize, the more money we’ll give you,” continued Cohn. By “we,” he clearly meant the federal government; by “you,” he appeared to be speaking, at least in part, about Goldman Sachs, whose Public Sector and Infrastructure group arranges the financing on large-scale public sector deals. “Goldman Sachs is one of the largest infrastructure fund managers globally,” according to infrastructure advisory firm InfraPPP Partners, “having raised more than $10 billion of capital since the inception of the business in 2006.” Lost in the infamous press conference the president gave in the lobby of Trump Tower a few days after Charlottesville, with Cohn and Mnuchin visibly uncomfortable at his right flank, were Trump’s remarks on infrastructure, the ostensible purpose of the event. The thrust was that the president would grease the wheels for project approvals by signing an executive order rolling back environmental impact requirements and other elements of an “overregulated permitting process.”
In countless other ways, Cohn is positioned to help the firm that has been so good to him over the years. The country’s National Economic Council adviser might caution a president against running too large a deficit, especially amid a healthy economy. But Goldman Sachs is in the business of finding investors to underwrite government debt. An economic adviser might caution a populist president that corporate inversions often cost jobs and tax revenue. Instead, Trump has ordered a review of policies Obama put in place to discourage them — good news for Cohn’s former colleagues. Transparency has been a watchword of initial public offerings dating back at least to the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934, but easing those rules, a step Goldman has sought, could potentially generate hundreds of millions of dollars in fees for investment banks such as Goldman. The SEC announced in June that it would allow any company going public to withhold details of its finances and strategies, an exemption previously available only to firms with under $1 billion in revenue — more good tidings for Goldman. Just loosening the rules for IPOs, said Tyler Gellasch, the former Senate staffer, “could mean hundreds of millions of dollars more to Goldman.”
In June, the Treasury Department released a statement of principles about the administration’s approach to financial regulation focused on promoting “liquid and vibrant markets.” Not surprisingly, the report included a call to ease capital requirements and substantially amend the Volcker Rule.
It’s Cohn’s influence over the country’s regulators that worries Dennis Kelleher, the financial reform lobbyist. “To him, what’s good for Wall Street is good for the economy,” Kelleher said of Cohn. “Maybe that makes sense when a guy has spent 26 years at Goldman, a company who has repaid his loyalties and sweat with a net worth in the hundreds of millions.” Kelleher recalls those who lost a home or a chunk of their retirement savings during a financial crisis that Cohn helped precipitate. “They’re still suffering,” he said. “Yet now Cohn’s in charge of the economy and talking about eliminating financial reform and basically putting the country back to where it was in 2005, as if 2008 didn’t happen. I’ve started the countdown clock to the next financial crash, which will make the last one look mild.”