The irony for Cohn is that he made his bones at Goldman as a shrewd risk taker. For instance, as the financial crisis was unfolding, he was clever enough to urge Goldman to not only short the housing market as a proprietary firm bet but also to sell down Goldman’s inventory of squirrelly mortgage-backed securities, regardless of the prices they would fetch. It was a brilliant move. Whatever Goldman lost by selling its mortgage securities at a loss throughout the first half of 2007 was more than made up for by what Goldman made in the second half of 2007 by shorting the mortgage market. Not for nothing was Cohn paid some $70 million in compensation in 2007.
But his risk assessment skills seem to be escaping him in the Trump White House. He seems impotent and at a loss about the right thing to do. (It’s easy, Gary: resign.) His former colleagues at Goldman have noticed. Many of them hold diametrically opposed views at the same time about Cohn’s dilemma. The range of reactions, one of his former Goldman colleagues told me, spans everything from “He’s embarrassing himself” to “God, this guy”—Trump—“is crazy and so I hope there are some rational adults around him” and “I’m glad Gary Cohn is going to stick around” to try to temper the insanity. This person said that he believed Gary had done “a pretty good job of insulating himself from the wacky stuff” going on at the White House until last Tuesday, when both he and Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, found themselves flanking the president during his impromptu, off-the-rails press conference about Charlottesville, live from Trump Tower. “That visual of him and Stephen standing there shows how quickly things can change,” he said.