Let’s talk Trump Stink. It’s everywhere. And it’s really reeking this morning. Just ask Donald Trump administration officials Matthew Pottinger, Mick Mulvaney, Stephanie Grisham, Elaine Chao, Anna Cristina Niceta, Sarah Matthews, and Marc Short, all of whom reportedly resigned from or, in Short’s case, was locked out of the White House in the wake of Trump’s failed coup attempt. Other rats—Robert O’Brien, the deputy national security adviser, and Chris Liddell, the deputy chief of staff—were also said to be thinking about jumping off Trump’s Titanic. The Trump Stink is also splattered all over Kelly Loeffler (despite a modicum of contrition she showed Wednesday night in not joining an electoral-vote challenge) and David Perdue. The two Republican U.S. senators, from Georgia, are only the latest elected officials to suffer political defeat because of their association with Donald Trump, the Biggest Loser. There are so many others, and more are soon to come as the hoary Trump Debacle comes to an end. (Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley anyone?)
But what about our old friends from Wall Street who thought it might be cagey to spend some time in Washington working for the 45th president of the United States? How’d that work out for them?
For some, such as Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s lapdog of a Treasury secretary, and Wilbur Ross—remember him?—Trump’s octogenarian commerce secretary, it’s too early to tell what they’ll do when they leave Washington. Neither man managed to distinguish himself—that goes almost without saying—but each will likely find a post-Trump sinecure. Ross, now 83 and still very wealthy, can hang at his mansion in Palm Beach, not far from Trump at Mar-a-Lago. His days on Wall Street—he had his own private-equity firm and was once a leading restructuring banker at Rothschild—are probably over. Mnuchin, on the other hand, will likely swivel right through the proverbial revolving door and end up at some tony hedge fund, or private-equity firm, many of which are plenty thankful for his role in getting the 2017 tax bill through Congress. The law cut the corporate tax rate to 21% from 35% and turned into a cash-spewing bonanza for Corporate America, while also—let’s not forget—contributing to increasing the national debt to a whopping $27 trillion (and counting). People like Mnuchin always find a way.
For others, curiously, the association with Trump seems to have been less of a poison than might have been feared. Take, for instance, the Mooch, a.k.a., Anthony Scaramucci, who famously served as Trump’s director of communications for 11 days, a time period that now has entered the lexicon as being equal to one Mooch. (Trump, for instance, has just over one Mooch left in the Oval Office.) Thanks to his dramatic defenestration from the West Wing, in July 2017, and his active participation in the Lincoln Project, the group created by a number of high-profile Republicans to oppose Trump and his reelection, Scaramucci has emerged from his association with Trump with his reputation relatively intact, and arguably enhanced. He is a regular talking head on CNN, and on other cable-television channels, and has used his platform to preach the anti-Trump gospel. True, the former Goldman Sachs banker’s hedge fund, SkyBridge Capital, had a rough 2020—the fund was down about 7.5%, its worst year since 2008—but his newly created Bitcoin fund has benefited from the Bitcoin tear of the last month or so. That fund is up some $100 million in profit on a $175 million investment made in November, according to the Financial Times.
Dina Powell McCormick has kept a much lower profile than the Mooch since she departed the Trump White House in January 2018, after serving about a year on the National Security Council as a deputy to H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second national security adviser. Soon after departing Washington, McCormick returned to Goldman Sachs as a partner and she joined the firm’s powerful and exclusive management committee. At the end of 2020, she was promoted by David Solomon, the Goldman CEO, to run the firm’s commitment to global sustainability. She also continues to run Goldman’s efforts to win business from sovereign wealth funds around the world. She also got remarried after she left Washington—to David McCormick, the CEO of Bridgewater Associates, the $160 billion hedge fund founded by billionaire Ray Dalio. Both the Mooch and McCormick managed to escape Trumpworld with their dignity intact, a feat easier said than done.
But what about Gary Cohn, another Goldman Sachs veteran who spent 14 months as Trump’s first director of the National Economic Council and as an adviser to the president on economic policy? Is he toxic? Cohn, you will recall, was the former president and chief operating officer at Goldman Sachs—essentially the number two executive at the firm when Lloyd Blankfein was the CEO. When, around the time of the 2016 presidential election, Cohn’s own power play to succeed Blankfein failed, he left Goldman. Jared Kushner introduced Cohn, a lifelong Democrat, to Trump. After a few meetings at Trump Tower during the transition, Trump offered Cohn a top job in his administration. They had never met before the election. Cohn quickly accepted Trump’s offer.
Lots of people thought Cohn was nuts to associate with Trump. But Cohn believed he could do more good working at Trump’s elbow day after day than he could from an outside perch. He hoped to temper Trump’s baser instincts. How quaint. He also likely figured working in the White House would be a resume enhancer. While Mnuchin got the credit publicly for shepherding the 2017 tax cut through Congress, it was really Cohn who was the driving force. Despite repeated public clashes—especially over Trump’s statements after the deadly Charlottesville protests—Cohn was basically a good soldier. He pined for another position in Washington. Maybe as Trump’s chief of staff, or as chairman of the Federal Reserve? Neither job materialized.
Cohn quit in March 2018, having witnessed on a daily basis Trump’s vile and incompetent behavior. He shared nothing publicly about Trump and his atrocious antics. (He was likely a blind source for Bob Woodward’s 2020 book, Rage. Cohn shared with me, in April 2018, plenty of revealing anecdotes about his daily visits with Trump in the Oval Office but then refused to let me publish them.) Why risk a nasty presidential tweet, or a future business opportunity? Why do the right thing? After all, he was getting between $200,000 and $250,000 a pop for speaking gigs and started investing in a number of start-ups, and he now serves on the boards of companies with names such as Abyrx, Gro Intelligence, Indago, Nanopay, and Starling. He is also the chairman of the board of Pallas Advisors, a Washington consulting firm.
On Tuesday, Cohn got his long-awaited reward from Corporate America. In a real head-scratcher, IBM, the onetime technology powerhouse, announced that Cohn would become a vice chairman and a member of the IBM executive leadership team, working in “partnership” with Arvind Krishna, the new IBM CEO. On Wall Street, being the vice chairman of anything is synonymous with career suicide. Not, apparently, at IBM. The company said Cohn would work with Krishna on “a wide range of business initiatives and external engagement,” whatever that means, including “business development, client services, public advocacy, and client relationship management.” Sounds like Cohn has just become IBM’s internal-investment banker. Reached via text, Cohn tells me he isn’t doing interviews—“I think the company is in earnings blackout,” he wrote—so one can only speculate about what he will really be doing at IBM. He announced his new job on his personal website and on Twitter, where he said he was “honored” to join IBM, “one [of] the world’s most important companies.”
When I last checked in on Cohn, in September, he had just completed a successful $828 million initial public offering of something he called Cohn Robbins Holdings Corp., a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, a scheme that was all the rage among former Wall Street bankers in 2020. For his SPAC, Cohn had joined up with Clifton Robbins, a former banker at Morgan Stanley and a former partner of two leading private-equity firms, KKR and General Atlantic. Together their sworn mission was to find a private company to merge into their SPAC before the two-year window expired, forcing them to give their money back to their investors, less the fees paid to bankers and lawyers to underwrite the IPO. In a September appearance on CNBC—when he was giving interviews, apparently—Cohn was all about his SPAC and how he and Robbins were committed to finding a company to buy. “We’ve got a list of potential opportunities that we’re gonna look at,” he said. Concerned about what his SPAC investors might think about his new gig at IBM—given that they likely invested believing he would give them his undivided attention—Cohn took to Twitter to assuage their concerns. His “commitment” to his SPAC was “unwavering,” he wrote, adding that he would continue to “partner” with Robbins in the “sourcing and execution” of a deal and “then working with the company to drive shareholder value in the years ahead.”
Looks like Cohn will be one busy guy between IBM and his SPAC. But who knows how long Cohn’s IBM gig will last? Once the world’s most valuable company, IBM’s market value is down to around $115 billion. It has reported declining revenue in 30 quarters during the past decade and is in the midst of integrating its $34 billion acquisition of Red Hat, an open-source company, that Krishna had championed.
Then there is the reaction to Cohn’s IBM appointment on Twitter, where people aren’t exactly shy about sharing their views. Some, like Jamshid Vayghan, an IBM executive specializing in artificial intelligence, welcomed Cohn to “our great company” and wrote that it was “great” to be his colleague. But much of the commentary was less complimentary. Bob Brussack, a retired law professor, tweeted, “If I were a customer of IBM, I’d be looking for an alternate supplier. No one who worked for Trump gets my business if I can help it.” Michael Daniels, who describes himself as a “concerned citizen,” tweeted, “Flush any and all IBM products, Now!” Some tweeps figured that hiring Cohn was payback for his role in shepherding the big corporate tax cut. “They got what they want from Trump Admin,” wrote Twitter user Neelakaj. “Massive tax cut that saved them billions.” Another, Zack Moran, tweeted that Krishna, the CEO, was “already having to do damage control with disgruntled anti-Trump employees.” And then there was this from Tom Van Blarcom: “Gary, you’re normalizing Trump will forever haunt you. You can’t wash that stink off.” Ah, the Trump Stink. We’re about to find out whether it ever goes away.
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