The question of the day, at least in my corner of the world, is this: How can Gary Cohn and Steven Mnuchin keep silent?
Cohn is chief economic advisor to President Donald Trump and the director the National Economic Council. Mnuchin is Secretary of the Treasury. Both men are Jewish. And both men stood just to the right of Donald Trump as he equated neo-Nazis and white supremacists with the people who protested them, and declared that at a rally attended and promoted by hate groups from around the country, there were “very fine people”
It was, as the historian Steven Windmueller wrote, “the first time in American history where a President has not uniformly and consistently condemned anti-Semitism.”
The statement was offensive enough that at least seven CEOs serving the administration as advisors resigned from their posts. But Mnuchin and Cohn, who both come from the world of business and finance, remained silent As of today, neither one has spoken out.
It is impossible to believe that both men are unaware of the deeply anti-semitic nature of the rally. Its attendees posted threats against the local Charlottesville synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, in the days leading up to the march. On the day of the rally, congregants felt the threat acutely. Here’s an account of that day from the temple’s president, Alan Zimmerman:
For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know.
Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.
A guy in a white polo shirt walked by the synagogue a few times, arousing suspicion. Was he casing the building, or trying to build up courage to commit a crime? We didn’t know. Later, I noticed that the man accused in the automobile terror attack wore the same polo shirt as the man who kept walking by our synagogue; apparently it’s the uniform of a white supremacist group. Even now, that gives me a chill.
When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.
Anti-semitism was not a bug of the rally, it was a feature. The marchers chanted, “Jew will not replace us!” Their flyers featured Nazi imagery and Stars of David. These were the men and women that the President put on the same moral plane as those who confronted them.
Some media reported that Cohn and Mnuchin looked uncomfortable as Trump spoke. If so, it is far more subtle than the visible snort and head shake his comments drew from Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly.
So why the silence from Cohn and Mnuchin? Here’s some guesses:
Could it be that neither man is that connected to his Jewish identity? Unlikely. Cohn is an active member of his local Jewish Federation. In 2009 he donated money to Hillel International in order to build a Jewish student center at Kent State University. It is called the Cohn Jewish Student Center. The Mnuchin family has a long history Jewish philanthropy as well.
Could it be that they know Trump is not an anti-Semite, so the idea that he supports anti-Semitism is ridiculous? Maybe. That’s what some of his other Jewish aides told the New York Times today.
“I know President Trump and his heart,” Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, wrote to the Times. “He is a good man and doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. All morning I am receiving horrific comments about being anti-black, racist, etc. for supporting Trump. It’s just wrong!”
This is the go-to response of Trump’s Jewish supporters, family and staff. It is probably true, but it’s also besides the point. You don’t have to be an anti-Semite to give cover to anti-Semites, which is what the President did yesterday. His motivations may have had nothing to do with his feelings about Jews, but the effect is the same. Neo-Nazis, repackaged as the “alt-right,” now can feel vindicated.
In fact, by standing silently by as Trump betrayed American Jews , Cohn and Mnuchin are only encouraging Trump’s behavior. He can use their presence to assure himself that he’s done nothing wrong.
Could it be they think the whole mess is a Leftist, media-fueled over-reaction to a few poorly chosen and ultimately meaningless words? Maybe. But neither man is known to be hyper-partisan. Records show they have given to Democratic as well as Republican candidates. They can read the denunciations of Trump’s words from a broad spectrum of Jewish organizations and community and religious leaders, as well as from numerous Republicans and foreign leaders.
“It is unbearable how Trump is now glossing over the violence of the right-wing hordes from Charlottesville,” Germany’s Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement, according to Reuters. “No one should trivialize anti-Semitism and racism by neo-Nazis.”
No one’s making this up, and Cohn and Mnuchin are too smart to think otherwise.
Could it be they put their duties and their loyalty to the President far above whatever concerns they have about his statements and actions? Again, maybe, in which case they have to swallow their gut reactions, shrug to their friends and family– hey, what can I do?– and just plow ahead.
Everybody makes choices about what principles are worth fighting for, Cohn and Mnuchin have made theirs. Thanks to President Trump, the neo-Nazis feel they have the wind at their backs, and white supremacists have planned more rallies across the country. Cohn and Mnuchin have to own the fact that their boss has just received Twitter raves from Richard Spencer, David Duke, Matthew Heimbach and their well-armed minions. Cohn and Mnuchin will have to explain whether they spoke up in private, because their public silence reads like cowardly acquiescence.
And Cohn and Mnuchin will need to face one of the supreme ironies of our time: when their boss endangered Jewish lives, they stayed silent, and the Germans spoke up.