WASHINGTON — An unprecedented rebuke of President Donald Trump by National Economic Council director Gary Cohn reverberated through Washington on Friday, forcing the White House to respond to harsh, public criticism from one of the president’s top advisers.
Cohn lashed Trump’s comments earlier this month blaming the violence in Charlottesville on “both sides,” saying in an interview with the Financial Times that “citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK.” The adviser, who is Jewish and has long given to Jewish causes, said that the administration “must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups.”
The criticism was the first serious public condemnation of Trump’s behavior by a member of his inner circle since the beginning of his presidency and raised the question of how a president who puts a heavy premium on loyalty would react.
Privately, a White House official said, Trump was furious about Cohn’s public airing, though publicly, White House officials, while defending the president’s response to the events in Charlottesville, acknowledged that the White House can always do more.
“Gary has not held back how he feels about the situation. He’s been very open and honest, so I don’t think anyone was surprised by the comments,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
At the same time, it was clear there was potential for a deterioration in the relationship between Trump and his chief economic adviser, whom he has been considering naming as Federal Reserve chair.
On Wednesday evening, Cohn complained loudly about Trump while dining with friends at a Long Island restaurant called the Frisky Oyster.
Cohn explained to his companions — in a loud voice overheard by others — that he had to be careful not to give Trump too much lead time about some new ideas because the president could disclose the information prematurely and upend the planning process, a person familiar with the dinner told the Washington Post.
Cohn drafted a resignation letter after Trump’s Charlottesville remarks, but he never signed it or discussed resigning with the president, a person familiar with the process told the Post.