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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Gary Cohn resignation: 'This is not about some sort of a palace coup'

Key Points
  • The departure of top Trump economic advisor Gary Cohn should not be viewed as a radical change in the White House, Ross says.
  • Cohn clashed with protectionist forces within the Trump administration, including Ross, over imposing trade tariffs.
  • "We're not looking for a trade war," the Commerce secretary says.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Gary Cohn resignation

The departure of top Trump economic advisor Gary Cohn should not be viewed as a radical change in the White House, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC on Wednesday.

"This is not about some sort of a palace coup," Ross said on "Squawk Box," one day after Cohn announced his resignation as director of the National Economic Council. Cohn clashed with Ross and other protectionist forces within the Trump administration over imposing trade tariffs.

"I have a great deal of respect for Gary," Ross said. "He's made a very big contribution to this improved economic environment. He did very good work on the taxes. He's doing very good work the infrastructure."

Stocks were down sharply in reaction to Cohn's resignation, but Ross said investors should not have been surprised. "Gary, as you know from all kinds of media has been kind of contemplating some sort of a move for a while."

Talking to reporters Wednesday morning, Ross declined to comment on potential candidates for Cohn's replacement. "Oh, I'm not going to speculate," he said. "This is a very important position. There are lots of very well-qualified people."

Cohn, who had been the No. 2 executive at Goldman Sachs before joining the administration, was against the plan that President Donald Trump announced on Thursday to levy broad import tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum.

In Wednesday's CNBC interview, Ross tried to reassure Wall Street that the White House is not acting rashly with the tariffs.

"We're going to have sensible relations with our allies," said Ross, who has consistently echoed the president's tough talk on trade.

In Brussels, the European Union threatened on Wednesday to impose duties on U.S. bourbon, peanut butter, cranberries and orange juice if Trump imposes the tariffs.

Ross has also been a key player in the administration's efforts to overhaul the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

While refusing to say whether the U.S. neighbors would get an exemption from the tariffs, Ross did say the president has indicated a degree of flexibility on the matter. "We're not trying to blow up the world," he told CNBC. "We're not looking for a trade war."

In his separate interview with reporters, Ross said the administration is trying to take "a surgical approach," a reply to House Speaker Paul Ryan's concerns about the tariffs.

"The president indicated that, if we can work something out with Canada and Mexico, they will be exempted," Ross said. "It's not inconceivable that others could be exempted on a similar basis."

Before joining the White House, Ross made a fortune in the investment world, running W.L. Ross & Co., and buying stakes in distressed assets.

— CNBC's Eamon Javers contributed to this article.

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