The Untold Story of How Gary Cohn Fell for Donald Trump

One photograph makes it abundantly clear just how present a small group of Goldman Sachs alumni has become in Donald Trump’s White House. From April 6, it shows a stone-faced Trump and his advisers in a “sensitive, compartmented information facility” at Mar-a-Lago, just after the president had given the order to launch cruise missiles at a Syrian-government airbase. In the closely cropped picture, released by Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Twitter, 14 men and one woman are crowded tightly around a small table, their eyes glued to a closed-circuit-television screen. Three of the people in the picture—Gary Cohn, the head of the National Economic Council and Trump’s chief economic adviser; Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary; and Dina Powell, a deputy national-security adviser—are former Goldman Sachs partners, one of the most coveted perches on Wall Street. A fourth, Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, was a Goldman Sachs vice president in the late 1980s, before he left the firm to start his own investment-banking business.

“I find it validating,” says Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman’s chairman and C.E.O., from his Battery Park City, Manhattan, office, 41 floors above the Hudson River, “that as he was looking for good people it happens that a lot of them had Goldman Sachs affiliations. It makes me feel good that he sees in those people the same thing I see in those people.”

That Trump would turn to Goldman Sachs to fill some of the most important positions in his fledgling administration is rich with irony. For years, Trump and Goldman practiced mutual disdain. Trump was the poster child of the kind of client that Goldman, which has always prided itself on superb risk management, warned its bankers to avoid. At least four of Trump’s hotel and casino businesses have ended up in bankruptcy court, costing creditors and shareholders billions of dollars in losses. For this reason and others, Goldman determined never to do business with Trump and conveyed that message to its new recruits. Sources at Goldman now deny he was unwelcome at the firm, but more than one former Goldman banker has told me that it’s true, and Goldman has never underwritten a single stock or bond offering for a Trump majority-owned business or real-estate project or lent him any money.
Goldman also avoided Trump politically. It is no secret that Cohn, when he was Goldman’s president and C.O.O., and Blankfein were Democrats—although neither man was particularly enamored of President Obama and his anti–Wall Street rhetoric. Famously, Goldman paid Hillary Clinton $675,000 to appear at three non-taxing question-and-answer sessions during 2013, less than two years before she declared her candidacy for president. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Goldman employees and affiliated pacs donated less than $5,000 to Trump during the 2016 election cycle. By contrast, Clinton received more than $340,000 from them.

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