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Trump To Talk Tax Code Overhaul With Key Members of Congress


President Trump is set to meet today with key members of Congress to discuss his push to overhaul the tax code. After months of private conversations, that effort is shifting into high gear. And at the center of the administration's efforts is Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive who directs the National Economic Council. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, there were rumors Cohn might leave the White House before the tax push even got off the ground.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to grow the economy. And as Gary Cohn told reporters last month, fixing taxes is a key part of that.


GARY COHN: We just spent literally the morning upstairs working on our tax reform plan, tax reform roll out. We are going to hit the ground running. We know we have to get that done.

HORSLEY: Cohn's outline for a big tax rollout was largely overlooked, though. That's because moments earlier, the president stood in the lobby of Trump Tower and waffled on who was to blame for a violent white supremacist rally three days earlier in Charlottesville, Va.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You also had people that were very fine people on both sides.

HORSLEY: Cohn, who's Jewish, listened in dismay as Trump appeared to defend those who marched alongside neo-Nazis and the KKK. He later told The Financial Times, the administration can and must do better to condemn such groups. Cohn also said he faced enormous pressure to quit over the president's remarks. Just the rumor he might leave the White House sent the Dow Jones tumbling more than 270 points. CNBC commentator, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, says that's a measure of how Wall Street views Cohn's influence.


JEFFREY SONNENFELD: I think if he steps away, it would crash the markets. There's a lot of faith that he's going to help carry through the tax reform that people are looking for, if not, also the deregulatory agenda.

HORSLEY: In the end, after what he called numerous private conversations with the president, Cohn decided to stay on at the White House. That was no surprise to Richie Schaeffer, a friend and former chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange.

RICHARD SCHAEFFER: Gary has never, ever, ever been a quitter. And if he believes he can bring value, in this case to America, he will stay with it until he succeeds.

HORSLEY: Success for Cohn was not always assured. Growing up in Cleveland, he had dyslexia and struggled in school. A teacher told his parents he'd be lucky to find work as a truck driver. Cohn told students at American University he bluffed his way into a Wall Street job interview while sharing a cab to the airport with a commodities trader.


COHN: By the end of the taxi ride, he says what do you know about options? I told I know everything. He said, great.

HORSLEY: Actually, Cohn didn't know anything about options, but that didn't stop him.


COHN: First stop on the way in from the airport was the bookstore. I bought the...


COHN: ...McMillon "Options As A Strategic Investment" book and read it four times. As I said, dyslexic guy, read it four times over the course of the weekend.

HORSLEY: He got the job and eventually climbed the ranks to become president of Goldman Sachs. He told an audience at Sacred Heart University, success doesn't necessarily come from betting right the first time, but rather, from adjusting quickly when the market tells you you're wrong.


COHN: I'm really good at making mistakes. And you have to be good at making mistakes if you want to thrive in life but don't make the same mistake twice.

HORSLEY: Cohn helped steer Goldman Sachs through the mortgage meltdown that destroyed other Wall Street firms. And he was richly rewarded with hundreds of millions of dollars. He's one of at least half dozen Goldman alums to land jobs in the Trump administration, which hardly squares with the president's populist promise to drain the swamp. But Cohn's friend and former super agent, Michael Ovitz, says Cohn's ability to course correct will be just as valuable in Washington.

MICHAEL OVITZ: You have to be able to admit you're on the wrong side of the fence. And you got to get over to the middle or to the other side without any ego problems. And I've always found Gary to be ego-less, frankly.

HORSLEY: A fragile ego might have been bruised last week when Trump kicked off his tax campaign in Springfield, Mo., praising the secretaries of treasury and commerce but making no mention of Cohn. Some saw that as payback for Cohn's criticism of Trump's Charlottesville remarks. But White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders insists the omission was not a snub.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president's made very clear this is a top priority for him, for his administration. And Gary is one the people leading the charge in that effort for him and will continue to do that.

HORSLEY: Cohn, a registered Democrat, has already outlasted West Wing rivals like Steve Bannon - the self-described nationalist who pilloried Cohn and other globalist in the White House. His friend Ovitz says, having started the push for a new tax code, Cohn is committed to seeing it through. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "I'M (HERE WITH YOU)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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