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After Losing Tariff Battle, Trump Economic Adviser Cohn Resigns

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump insists he enjoys it when his advisers disagree. I like watching it, he said, as a top economic adviser prepared to leave the White House. Gary Cohn departs for many reasons, it is said, but just as the president prepares to impose tariffs on imported aluminum and steel. The move has the approval of some Democrats, as we're hearing in today's program. It also has dismayed some of the president's allies. Stephen Moore of The Heritage Foundation has advised the president informally since his campaign and has said the tariffs are not needed. He's on the line.

Mr. Moore, welcome back to the program.

STEPHEN MOORE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's it mean that Gary Cohn leaves the White House staff?

MOORE: Well, look, Gary Cohn, I think, served the president extremely well. I mean, let's face it. This president had an amazing first year in office in terms of his performance on the economy with the roaring stock market and the huge improvement in the job market and so many other indicators of economic success - the higher growth rate. So Gary Cohn will leave with an impressive economic record. I think that he served the president well. I heard these reports about the overnight markets - financial markets being queasy about...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MOORE: ...Him leaving. But, you know, I would say that obviously, there are a lot of very capable people that Donald Trump could pick to succeed him. And I think he should probably - the...

INSKEEP: Although if Peter Navarro, say, ends up being the top economist at the White House rather than Gary Cohn - or the top economic adviser, let's say - he's somebody who's very much in favor of protectionism...

MOORE: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...Very much in favor of tariffs. It'd be a very different approach than Gary Cohn, who seemed to be a kind of guardrail against such things.

MOORE: You know, Steve, there aren't that many economists in the Republican Party or on the right that actually agree with Peter Navarro on tariffs. But look, I actually respect the fact that Donald Trump does get different opinions on economic ideas. That's what a president should do. And there is a healthy debate in the Republican Party right now about the advisability of tariffs. You mentioned that I'm against them, and I am. I think these are a mistake.

But Donald Trump did campaign around the country in those Midwestern states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, those states that he surprisingly won in the election, in no small part, winning those states because of his more protectionist rhetoric, that he would protect the jobs - factory jobs of a lot of those workers.

INSKEEP: You mentioned, Stephen Moore, that Gary Cohn had some moments when he could say that he firmly agreed with what the White House was doing. There were also moments when he very much did not. I'm thinking of...

MOORE: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Charlottesville and the white supremacist rallies in Virginia. When President Trump suggested that there were good people on both sides, it was said that Gary Cohn nearly resigned, decided not to because he thought he could be effective on economic policy. And here at the end, it turns out that he can't be effective on a vital part of economic policy from his point of view. Did you talk with him enough to have a sense of how frustrated he may have been in that job?

MOORE: No, I didn't. But it was no secret that he was frustrated at times. I mean, look, his crowning achievement, Steve, was that tax bill. And Gary Cohn was front and center on that. And, you know, as a conservative, I believe that was one of the great victories for the Republican Party and the economy in 25 years. So that's a big deal - that he was able to achieve that. And once that happened, I thought that Gary Cohn probably would leave sometime soon.

On the tariff issue, you know - Gary Cohn, I don't think, is completely lost here. You're seeing, in the last couple of days, Donald Trump may be dialing it back a little bit. Now there is some talk about maybe we should just impose the tariffs on countries like China that are cheating and stealing. And by the way, I would be in favor of tariffs against China. It's - what bothers me is, why are we imposing tariffs on countries like Mexico and Canada and Germany that are our allies?

INSKEEP: So let's put this on the table. Why is it a bad idea to impose tariffs that would raise the price of steel, raise the price of aluminum and, from the president's perspective, protect American industries that have been harmed?

MOORE: Because I think in the end of the day, you're going to actually end up costing the United States more of these factory jobs and manufacturing jobs than you're going to save because for every American worker that is employed in the aluminum and steel industry, Steve, we've got about 50 workers that use steel. And that means that their products that they produce, whether it's cars or - think about Caterpillar that's producing all of this kind of farm equipment and so on - that becomes more expensive.

And we live in a world right now of hyper - you know, competitiveness. And we need to make sure our American companies can compete. And it's harder to compete when you have to buy steel that's 20 percent more expensive than the German companies are using. And so this is one of the reasons some companies said, well, maybe we won't invest in the United States now. Maybe we'll invest in Canada or another country, reversing some of the gains that I think Trump has made in terms of bringing investment to the United States because of the tax cut.

INSKEEP: Stephen Moore of The Heritage Foundation, always a pleasure. Thanks very much.

MOORE: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.