Gary Cohn lashes out at former White House colleagues: 'Living in chaos'

Key Points
  • Former White House economic advisor Gary Cohn lashes out in a radio interview against former colleagues Peter Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
  • The former Goldman Sachs executive says that among economists, Navarro is the "only one in the world" who thinks tariffs work.
  • Cohn also charges that Navarro and Ross set up a secret meeting to inform steel and aluminum industry executives of tariffs that were coming their way.
Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn arrives before a joint news conference of President Donald Trump and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy at the White House, September 26, 2017.
Joshua Roberts | Reuters

Former White House chief economic advisor Gary Cohn lashed out at some of his former colleagues, charging in a radio interview that the U.S. is losing the trade war as administration officials pursue a strategy that hasn't worked.

Cohn, President Donald Trump's first director of the National Economic Council, specifically pointed his finger at Peter Navarro, who serves as director of the National Trade Council, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for drawing the country into a misdirected tariff battle.

Gary Cohn: America's competitive advantage is its 'entrepreneurial spirit'
Gary Cohn: America's competitive advantage is its 'entrepreneurial spirit'

"Tariffs don't work. If anything, they hurt the economy because if you're a typical American worker, you have a finite amount of income to spend," the former Goldman Sachs executive told "Freakonomics" radio in an interview broadcast Wednesday. "If you have to spend more on the necessity products that you need to live, you have less to spend on the services that you want to buy."

When interviewer Stephen J. Dubner suggested that all other economists except for one — Navarro — would agree on that point, Cohn said, "There's only one in the world. That we know of."

Peter Navarro, director of the National Trade Council, right, and Wilbur Ross, U.S. commerce secretary, arrive to a presidential memorandum targeting China's economic aggression signing with U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, March 22, 2018.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Among the other revelations from his time in the White House, Cohn said a tipping point for him leaving was a meeting Navarro and Ross secretly set up with heads of the steel and aluminum industry to notify them that the administration was planning to levy tariffs on imports of the metals.

"What happened in the White House is we got to a point, unfortunately, where one or two people decided that they were going to no longer be part of a process and a debate," he said.

Asked to confirm that it was Navarro and Ross who set up the meeting, Cohn said, "Yes. Those are the two people. When the process breaks down, then you're, sort of, in my mind, living in chaos. I don't want to live in a chaotic organization."

'The president needs a win'

Cohn served in the post from the beginning of the Trump administration in January 2017 until April 2, 2018.

Chief among his achievements was the passage of the biggest tax cut in U.S. history that slashed the corporate rate from 36 percent to 21 percent and redrew the individual income tax brackets to give lower earners double the standard deduction.

However, he also had several high-profile disagreements with the administration, including one point where he nearly resigned following Trump's comments on a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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He also fought against the tariffs, a battle he was destined to lose. But he said Trump also is losing, evidenced by the record trade deficits in 2018 with both China and the rest of the world. The U.S. shortfall with China was $419.2 billion for the year, an increase of 11.6 percent. Globally, the deficit was $621 billion, up 12.5 percent year over year.

"Did it hurt the Chinese at all? We had record trade deficits," Cohn said. "The president needs a win. The only big open issue right now that he could claim as a big win that he'd hope would have a big impact on the stock market would be a Chinese resolution. Getting the trade deficit down I will never say is easy, but of the issues on the table, that's relatively easier."

However, he said the president is in for a tougher time in trying to resolve intellectual theft and forced transfer of technology issues.

Nevertheless, Cohn said he gives Trump credit for a number of achievements, including "a pretty robust economy" as well as stock market gains that have held up reasonably well even after a rough 2018. Cohn said he would grade himself a "B" for his performance in the White House.

The White House did not immediately reply to a CNBC request for comment.