The Tariffs that Broke the Camel’s Back

Gary Cohn

On March 7, 2018, President Donald Trump signed a sweeping steel tariff act into law via executive order. As of the writing of this blog there have been several material changes made to this tariff in terms of the countries subject to it and the products covered. In addition to steel, the tariff initially included aluminum, washing machines, and solar panels.  It is unclear what the long-term legacy of these tariffs will be. However, in the short term they have conclusively led to Gary Cohn’s departure as the Director of the National Economic Council under President Trump. The exact circumstances of Cohn’s resignation are murky, but Jack Ohman, the artist of the cartoon above, thinks that Cohn was kicked out. Bret Stephens, author of the editorial “Gary Cohn’s Breaking Point,” believes that Cohn hit a breaking point either personally or professionally. Whatever was happening behind the scenes between Trump and Cohn, clearly the steel tariff was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

John Knott’s Right in the Middle of his Speech and this untitled cartoon by Jack Ohman work well together as bookends. Both cartoons address the same subject: the professional fallout of unpopular tariffs. Their differences highlight how divisive tariffs are as a tool for boosting the national economy. In Right in the Middle of his Speech, President Hoover is paying the price for the Smoot-Hawley Tariffs at the hands of the voters who have had two years to observe the effects of the tariff. In Ohman’s untitled cartoon, it is Gary Cohn who’s career is plummeting even before the steel tariffs were officially signed into law.

Gary Cohn and President Trump had a fraught working relationship. Before joining the Trump Administration, Cohn was a high-ranking employee with Goldman Sachs. The two had very different points of view regarding what would be best for the economy of the nation. Donald Trump was the first presidential candidate since Herbert Hoover to run on a platform of economic protectionism. By contrast, Cohn was a globalist and proponent of free trade.

The difficulties between the two men took a personal turn in the aftermath of the August 2017 Charlottesville protest, Rally for the Right. The Rally for the Right was comprised primarily of alt-right political groups that included white supremacists and neo-Nazis who chanted anti-Semitic slogans and waved Nazi flags. Counter-protestors showed up to oppose the Unite the Right rally. While violence did erupt between the two groups, it was the neo-Nazis who were there for Unite the Right that had showed up with weapons and shields. It was also a neo-Nazi supporter that drove a car through a group of counter-protestors, injuring 19 and killing one.

The public outcry was immediate; however the Trump administration was slow to issue an official response. When President did respond to the incident in Charlottesville, it was via a tweet which read in part “…There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets [sic] come together as one!” (Trump). People were shocked by the weak response. The day after this tweet President Trump had a press conference where the American public expected him to denounce the hateful ideology of the neo-Nazis and the violence committed by their supporters. What Trump said instead of that was, “There were many fine people on both sides” (Wang, “Read the Transcript…”).

There was a great deal of anger from many quarters due to Trump not only failing to condemn the vicious bigotry of the neo-Nazis, but saying they were “fine people”. Gary Cohn, a Jewish man who gave generously to Jewish charities, was standing in the lobby of Trump Tower when the President made these equivocating remarks. Then Cohn was left to field economic questions immediately after Trump completed his statement. In the aftermath of this, Cohn would publicly criticize the Trump administration’s response to Charlottesville but without naming the president explicitly. “…that the Trump administration “can and must do better” to condemn hate groups and “do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities”,” (Kelly, “Gary Cohn, Trump’s Adviser, ….”). In that same article Cohn said the only reason he did not resign was that he wanted to shepherd through tax cuts that he had helped author, a once in a lifetime opportunity.

However, after the tax cuts were passed into law in December of 2017, Cohn and Trump began butting heads over the prospect of the heavy steel tariffs President Trump wanted to impose. Cohn was among many voices that protested the tariffs. Once it became clear that the tariffs were going to happen, Cohn tendered his resignation within days. Cohn resigned on March 6, 2018 and Trump signed an executive order to enact tariffs on March 8. The reason he gave was that if Trump was not going to listen to his advice, there was little point in holding the position of Director of the Economic Council.

In addition to the professional, economic disagreements between the two men, there was doubtless a large amount of personal conflict. President Trump has always valued personal loyalty above any other characteristic of the people who work with and for him (Olen, “Trump’s Creepy, Autocratic Obsession with Loyalty). Cohn’s criticism of the Trump Administration’s handling of the Charlottesville incident stung. While Cohn and Trump were on a similar wavelength regarding the tax cuts, the steel tariff was Trump’s personal pet project; thus, when Cohn spoke out against the tariff, there is little doubt that President Trump saw the action as further evidence of Cohn’s disloyalty.

Ohman’s cartoon depicts the moment that Cohn officially resigned on March 6, 2018 (Ohman). Visually it is incredibly similar to John Knott’s cartoon Right in the Middle of his Speech.  As Cohn leaps from the crumbling steel infrastructure, he insists, “I jumped, I swear…”; meanwhile, Trump is standing on the construction platform and appears to have kicked Cohn from the building. There’s good reason for Cohn to insist that the departure was of his own volition. Before he left Goldman Sachs to join the administration as the Director of the National Economic Council, Cohn was on the shortlist of candidates to replace the CEO of Goldman Sachs; thus, resigning as the result of a stubborn president would look much better for his career than being fired.

The steel tariffs are referenced in this cartoon by the crane labeled “Art of the Steel Tariff,” which is also a play on the 1987 autobiography about Trump– The Art of the Deal– that actually was authored by ghostwriter Tony Schwartz. In Ohman’s cartoon, the “Art of the Steel” crane seems to be out of control. The cable is whipping back and forth, and the hook is snagged on a beam of the steel infrastructure that Cohn has just been kicked from. This is likely more than simple artistic license. One of Cohn’s pet projects was the rebuilding of American infrastructure; bridges, railways, power grids, and so forth (“Gary Cohn Joins the Exodus”). Such infrastructure projects would require lots of steel and aluminum, which would be made more expensive by the tariffs.

The last notable feature of the comic is the sign behind President Trump, which reads “Trump Chaostruction Inc.” In addition to many other industries, the Trump Organization included construction companies. Ohman makes reference to this as he makes a portmanteau with “construction” and “chaos.” One of the things that the Trump administration has been criticized for is the high churn rate among appointees and employees. In the first year of his administration the turnover rate was more than 40% (Keith, “White House Turnover was Already Record Setting….”). At the time of his departure, Gary Cohn was the highest-ranking member of Trump Administration to leave, a move that prompted speculation about instability. Trump responded to that criticism with the following tweet:

The new Fake News narrative is that there is CHAOS in the White House. Wrong! People will always come & go, and I want strong dialogue before making a final decision. I still have some people that I want to change (always seeking perfection). There is no Chaos, only great Energy!

The circumstances of the two cartoons are very different. The Knott cartoon Right in the Middle of his Speech was created with the benefit of hindsight. It was published more than two years after the implementation of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. In contrast, this untitled cartoon by Ohman was published the day after Trump’s steel tariffs. Hoover supported the Smooth-Hawley tariff; Cohn opposed Trump’s steel tariffs.

Nonetheless, both cartoons use the same visual language and have the same moral: tariffs can be deadly to a politician’s career. This is illustrated in both cases with the politician falling from a structure. Like Knott, Ohman chooses to focus his cartoon on the personal consequences of a tariff. Trade wars, recessions, high prices, and other pitfalls of tariffs are incidental to the point the artists are making.

 

 

Works Cited

Diamond, Jeremy. “Top Economic Adviser Gary Cohn Leaves White House in Wake of Tariff Rift.” CNN, 7 Mar. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/03/06/politics/gary-cohn-white-house-tariffs/index.html. Accessed 9 Apr. 2018.

The Editorial Board. “Gary Cohn Joins Exodus.” The New York Times, 6 Mar. 2018. The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2018/03/06/opinion/gary-cohn-resignation.html. Accessed 8 May 2018.

J.E.F. “Gary Cohn Resigns as Donald Trump’s Economic Advisor.” The Economist, 7 Mar. 2018, www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2018/03/tariff-rifts-0. Published the day after he resigned

Keith, Tamra. “White House Staff Turnover was Already Record Setting. Then More Adivsers Left.” National Public Radio, 7 Mar. 2018, www.npr.org/2018/03/07/591372397/white-house-staff-turnover-was-already-record-setting-then-more-advisers-left. Accessed 16 Apr. 2018.

Kelley, Kate, and Maggie Haberman. “Gary Cohn, Trump’s Adviser, Said to Have Drafted Resignation Letter after Charlottesville.” New York Times, 25 Aug. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/08/25/us/politics/gary-cohn-trump-charlottesville.html. Accessed 17 Apr. 2018.

Knott, John Francis. Right in the Middle of his Speech. 15 Oct. 1932. America’s Historical Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=L63Q49PFMTUyMjMzMzk1Mi42MTE4MzI6MToxMjoxMjguODMuNjMuMjA&p_action=doc&s_lastnonissuequeryname=4&d_viewref=search&p_queryname=4&p_docnum=1&p_docref=v2:0F99DDB671832188@EANX-10483D9233E8A080@2426996-10483D92A9E93CD3@17-10483D94E2A30003@.

Ohman, Jack. “Jack Ohman.” GoComics, Universal Press Syndicate, 8 Mar. 2018, www.gocomics.com/     jackohman/2018/03/08. Accessed 14 May 2018. Cartoon.

Olen, Helen. “Trump’s Creepy, Autocratic Obsession with Loyalty.” The Washington Post, 30 Apr. 2018, Opinion sec. The Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2018/04/30/trumps-creepy-autocratic-obsession-with-loyalty/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.3d0a68b808d2. Accessed 11 May 2018.

Stephens, Bret. “Gary Cohn’s Breaking Point.” The New York Times, 7 Mar. 2018. The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2018/03/07/opinion/gary-cohn-breaking-point.html. Accessed 8 May 2018.

Trump, Donald J. “The new Fake News narrative is that there is CHAOS in the White House. Wrong! People will always come & go, and I want strong dialogue before making a final decision. I still have some people that I want to change (always seeking perfection). There is no Chaos, only great Energy!” Twitter, 6 Mar. 2018, twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/971006379375972354.

—. “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!” Twitter, 12 Aug. 2018, 10:19 AM, twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/896420822780444672?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.vox.com%2F2017%2F8%2F12%2F16138610%2Fcharlottesville-nazi-rally-trump-tweet&tfw_site=voxdotcom.

Wang, Christine, and Kevin Breuninger. “Read the transcript of Donald Trump’s jaw-dropping Press Conference.” Dwd. www.CNBC.com, CNBC, 15 Aug. 2017, www.cnbc.com/2017/08/15/read-the-transcript-of-donald-trumps-jaw-dropping-press-conference.html. Accessed 16 Apr. 2018.