Does Cohn Face Conflict Of Interest In Infrastructure Plan? Probably Not, Former White House Lawyers Say

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Alex Pfeiffer White House Correspondent
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Gary Cohn, the head of the National Economic Council, will likely not violate ethics rules due to involvement in the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan to work with the private sector, two former White House lawyers have told The Daily Caller.

Cohn, who is reportedly leading the White House’s infrastructure effort, is the former chief operations officer of Goldman Sachs and is barred from dealing with matters that directly or significantly involve his former employer. The White House released ethics waivers for officials, and Cohn did not receive one.

The infrastructure plan that the White House plans to implement will likely involve private-public partnerships in which public assets will be sold off to fund projects. This would benefit Goldman Sachs, according to a report from International Business Times.

The report said that Securities and Exchange Commission documents show that Goldman Sachs is interested in “new business initiatives” related to buying up public assets.

Richard Painter, who served as the chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush and has been an outspoken critic of the Trump administration, told The Daily Caller Sunday that if Cohn sticks to the general policymaking level he does not risk running afoul of ethics rules.

Painter compared it to a former Lockheed Martin employee joining the Department of Defense and wanting higher spending. He said this would be fine, just not a particular deal with Lockheed.

Painter said the risk for Cohn is that if Trump “puts his dealmaker hat on and calls specific companies.” The former White House ethics lawyer and current law professor added, “Cohn better not go with him or he can get himself in a violation.”

Another former senior White House attorney that served in a Republican administration agreed with Painter in an interview with TheDC. The former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Cohn would be in trouble if he were to emerge as supporting a particular project that Goldman Sachs is involved in. The former White House attorney added that Cohn would fine if he just sticks to infrastructure as a general matter.

At the time of the International Business Times report about Cohn, Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren demanded Cohn recuse himself from the infrastructure privatization initiative. “Gary Cohn must recuse himself – he promised to recuse himself from any matter directly related to Goldman, and it’s clear that this issue could be worth a fortune to Goldman,” Warren said.

A White House official told The Washington Post recently that Cohn continues to recuse himself from any matters specific to Goldman Sachs. White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters told the Post, “To the furthest extent possible, counsel worked with each staffer to recuse from conflicting conduct rather than being granted waivers, which has led to the limited number of waivers being issued.”