December 14, 2018

Gary Cohn, Steven Mnuchin: You good with this?

President Donald Trump delivers remarks following a meeting on infrastructure at Trump Tower, August 15, 2017 in New York City. Standing alongside him from L to R, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney. He fielded questions from reporters about his comments on the events in Charlottesville, Virginia and white supremacists. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

Senate confirms Mnuchin for Treasury, Shulkin for VA

Eli Miller, Chief Operating Officer of the Trump campaign, left, with Steve Mnuchin, national finance chairman for the Trump campaign, arriving at Trump Tower, in New York City, Nov. 29, 2016. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The U.S. Senate confirmed Steven Mnuchin as Treasury secretary and David Shulkin as secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Mnuchin was confirmed Monday evening 53-47 along party lines, with Joe Manchin of West Virginia the only Democrat to vote in his favor. He was sworn in the same evening by Vice President Mike Pence, with President Donald Trump present, in the Oval Office.

Democrats opposed Mnuchin, who was treasurer for Trump’s campaign, alleging that the bank he led, OneWest, used foreclosures during the financial crisis of the late 2000s to prey on vulnerable homeowners.

Trump said at the swearing in ceremony that Mnuchin, who also was a Hollywood producer, would be a champion of the middle class.

“To all citizens I say, Steven will be your champion, and a great champion,” Trump said. “He will fight for middle-class tax reductions, financial reforms, and open up lending and create millions of new jobs, and fiercely defend the American tax dollar and our financial security.”

Mnuchin said a priority would be to combat terrorist financing. “I am committed to using the full powers of this office to create more jobs, to combat terrorist activities and financing, and to make America great again,” he said.

The Treasury has under successive administrations been a key venue for targeting terrorist finances through exposure and finances. The scrutiny has intensified since the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal a year ago, in part to assuage Israeli fears that sanctions relief under the deal would facilitate Iranian backing for terrorist groups.

Also on Monday evening, the Senate confirmed Shulkin unanimously. Shulkin, a physician, was deputy VA secretary under President Barack Obama and is the only holdover from that administration.

Both Mnuchin and Shulkin are Jewish.

Treasury pick Steven Mnuchin was mentored by two of Trump’s ‘global’ villains

Like the post-credits bonus scene in a Marvel superhero movie, Donald Trump’s final pre-election ad added three surprising villains to his usual rogues’ gallery (Hillary and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, assorted foreigners): Lloyd Blankfein, George Soros and Janet Yellen.

All three deal with money: Blankfein as CEO of the Goldman Sachs investment back, Soros as a leading hedge funder and Yellen as chairwoman of the Federal Reserve. All three are Jewish.

And now, Blankfein and Soros also have this in common: They both once employed Steven Mnuchin, the man who would be President Trump’s Treasury secretary – and who also is Jewish.

Mnuchin, who confirmed Wednesday he was Trump’s Treasury pick, reported to Blankfein in the 1990s when Blankfein helmed Goldman Sachs’ fixed income division. (Blankfein told the Washington Post that Mnuchin was a “very smart guy” when he knew him, but they haven’t stayed in touch over the years.)

After leaving Goldman Sachs in 2002, Mnuchin spent a brief period working for Soros, who then helped him set up Duke Capital Management.

Mnuchin was one of the early establishment Republican donors who backed Trump, and was the finance chairman for the campaign.

This raises three questions for the Trump transition team, and for Mnuchin:

What did Mnuchin think of the ad?

Lots of Trump defenders on social media are pointing to the naming of Mnuchin to refute claims Trump is an anti-Semite (although few of the same the same folks eased up on Obama when he named a former civilian volunteer for the Israel Defense Forces, Rahm Emanuel, as his chief of staff).

The more credible accusation against Trump is not that he is anti-Semitic, but that he and his campaign have trafficked in language and conspiracy theories that would immediately be understood by anti-Semites as signaling Jewish villainy — and galvanize them to back the campaign. In the closing ad, photos of Soros and Yellen accompanied Trump’s denunciation of “those who control the levers of power in Washington” and “the global special interests.” Blankfein’s face was used to illustrate the “global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”

As campaign finance chairman, Mnuchin might well have signed off on the ad. What did he think, not just of the framing of relatively obscure Jewish banking figures as villains, but of the inclusion of two people who mentored him?

What will Trump’s voters think of the choice?

Mnuchin is not just a graduate of the moneyed class Trump claimed to repudiate during his campaign, or of the very firm that Trump said had “total control” over Hillary Clinton: He is known for running a bank, OneWest, that profited from as many as 36,000 foreclosures, according to a housing advocacy group.

NPR tracked down a couple, Rose and Rex Schaffer, who lost their home of nearly 50 years after failing to persuade a phalanx of bureaucrats to back down. They voted for Trump. Asked about Mnuchin’s new prospective job, they sounded puzzled: “If he can’t run his own little bank, how can he handle a large thing for the United States?” Rose Schaffer asked.

Questions like that may proliferate. Trump, who campaigned hard on a protectionist platform, is naming Wilbur Ross, a billionaire who has explored China’s markets for investment opportunities, as his Commerce secretary.

What happens to Yellen?

Janet Yellen is the only villain in the Trump ad who does not seem to have once had a nurturing relationship with Mnuchin, so she’s yesterday’s news, right?

Not so much. Trump obviously doesn’t like her, saying during the campaign that the Fed kept interest rates artificially low to prop up Obama, but there’s not much he can do until 2018, when her term ends and he gets to name her replacement.

Then again, Trump is flirting with folks he lacerated during the campaign; after he and 2012 nominee Mitt Romney exchanged terms of art like “fraud” and “loser,” Trump is now considering Romney for secretary of state.

Mnuchin in his interviews seems more focused on a tax overhaul then he does on the Fed; on Wednesday morning, he told CNBC that Yellen was doing a “good job.”

Trump said to name Steven Mnuchin as Treasury secretary

President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Treasury secretary reportedly is Steven Mnuchin, the banker and movie producer who was his campaign’s finance chief.

Mnuchin, who is Jewish and in his mid-50s, made his fortune as a banker for Goldman Sachs, and has also helmed smaller banks and produced blockbusters like Avatar and the X-Men movies.

Multiple media, including Politico, the New York Times and the Washington Post, said in alerts posted late Tuesday that Mnuchin was Trump’s Treasury pick.

Mnuchin, who backed Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, was among the earliest of Republican establishment figures to support Trump’s insurgent campaign for the Republican nomination. His father is the noted art dealer, Robert Mnuchin, who also made a fortune at Goldman Sachs.

The choice of Mnuchin for Treasury secretary may come as a surprise, considering how Trump campaigned against moneyed interests victimizing working classes. One California bank Mnuchin headed, IndyMac, was dubbed the “foreclosure machine,” according to NPR, profiting from as many as 36,000 foreclosures.

Mnuchin is not the only Goldman Sachs alumnus advising Trump – his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, also worked for the bank. Trump nonetheless castigated Wall Street during his campaign, and in one of his final ads cast Goldman Sachs’ CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, as a villain.