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Blog Post | January 12, 2021

Gary Cohn, IBM, And A Tale As Old As Time

Ethics in Government
Gary Cohn, IBM, And A Tale As Old As Time

Amidst renewed furor to impeach Trump and expel Members of Congress for supporting the right wing Capitol Insurrection, more typical elite corruption goes without comment. IBM announced in January that Gary Cohn, Trump’s former head of the National Economic Council, would be appointed vice-chairman. Despite announcements that some corporations and lobbyists mulled temporarily suspending donations to Republicans inciting riots and IBM’s claim to support black lives, their announcement reveals the lie: Corporate America has no problem bringing high-level Trump appointees back into their elite fold.

Gary Cohn was the Chief Operating Officer of Goldman Sachs before he joined the Trump administration. There he spent 14 months heading the top economic policy agenda setter in the White House. He worked behind the scenes to pass the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act and secured for Corporate America the lower taxes and higher profits they pay the Republican party for. Cohn eventually broke with the administration not over his supposed concern over Trump’s response to white nationalist violence at Charlottesville, but over Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on foreign aluminum and steel.

Cohn was hardly ostracized once he resigned from the administration. As Vanity Fair writes, Cohn quickly began earning “$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.”

His appointment to IBM’s highest leadership during the denouement of Trump’s presidency epitomizes how the American elite comfortably launders its corruption. Michael Froman, Obama’s US Trade Representative, waltzed back into corporate boardrooms he left to work in government and is now Vice-Chairman for Mastercard. Ernest Moniz, the former Energy Secretary, departed government and eventually found a home on the board of the Southern Company, a natural gas producer. 

Recent political history is replete with the convenient whitewashing of the revolving door that government officials flaunt. If recent events do not make it clear, Trump appointees should not be given a free pass to retreat into corporate sinecures. Powerful business positions, university honorariums, nonprofit fellowships and advisory board seats should not be awarded to those who entered government to deliver the goods to special interests. This obvious truth should be especially apparent for those who are leaving an administration that just spent “four years looting the federal government and systematically destroying any of its protections against social injustice or corporate power.”

Prospective corporate and nonprofit boards should understand what IBM doesn’t: hiring Trump appointees does not bestow gravitas but the appearance of double-dealing. As Forbes editor Randall Lane warned, “Hire any of Trump’s fellow fabulists […] and Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie. We’re going to scrutinize, double-check, investigate with the same skepticism we’d approach a Trump tweet. Want to ensure the world’s biggest business media brand approaches you as a potential funnel of disinformation? Then hire away.” There is no honest business case for bringing these people into your company.

Accountability will take more than simply stripping awards and lucrative board seats from current and future Trump officials. As Eleanor Eagan and Jeff Hauser wrote last week, it will require a thorough “De-Trumpification” of the executive branch’s policy and personnel as a whole. But it would be a good place to start.

Ethics in Government

More articles by Elias Alsbergas

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