The Purloined Letter Solves the Case of the Mysterious ‘Resistance’

Dan Froomkin
Sep 7, 2018 · 4 min read

Exhibit A in support of Trump insiders’ efforts to “control his impulses and prevent disasters” is the letter Gary Cohn stole off his desk.

As the Washington Post recounted in the first story on Bob Woodward’s new book:

Cohn, a Wall Street veteran, tried to tamp down Trump’s strident nationalism regarding trade. According to Woodward, Cohn “stole a letter off Trump’s desk” that the president was intending to sign to formally withdraw the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea. Cohn later told an associate that he removed the letter to protect national security and that Trump did not notice that it was missing.

CNN has now posted the letter itself, dated September 5, 2017, as reproduced in Woodward’s book.

So, is this an example of Trump’s advisers saving him from unwittingly causing disaster and mayhem? Hardly.

For one, it’s been conflated with another Woodward anecdote, this one dating to January 19 (so the day before Trump’s inauguration?) at which Trump questioned the massive military presence in South Korea. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly told him.

Even in that case, Trump’s questioning, while ridiculed by Washington insider and “adult in the room” Mattis, is actually not ridiculous at all. Jeff Faux raised the same question in The Nation just last March in his article “Why Are US Troops Still in South Korea, Anyway?

“Citizens of our democracy looking for an answer soon find themselves lost in a fog of babble about America’s ‘vital interests.’ ” Faux wrote. He concluded that the U.S. military presence isn’t needed to defend South Korea, and by posing a threat to North Korea heightens tensions rather than lowers them.

But back to the actual letter, formally withdrawing the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea.

You will note that it is labeled “Pre-decisional/Deliberative” — so it wasn’t the copy Trump would actually have signed. And it doesn’t claim to end the trade deal — it provides 180 days notice, and includes an offer to negotiate.

Indeed, Trump had, a few months earlier, proudly announced his intent to end the Korea trade agreement right away — with no notice. In an April 2017 interview with the Washington Post, Trump called it “a horrible deal” that has left America “destroyed.”

His expressions of concern were hyperbolic — no surprise — but not entirely inaccurate.

As Lori Wallach, Public Citizen’s trade guru, explained to CBS Marketwatch (right around the time Cohn was whisking the letter off Trump’s desk), “The Korea agreement is the most dramatically failed of the free-trade agreements based on the model started by NAFTA.”

The data is brutal. Despite promises from George W. Bush and Barack Obama about how amazing it would be for U.S. workers, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea almost doubled in the agreement’s first five years. U.S. agricultural exports actually declined while a deluge of Korean cars were sold on the U.S. market.

Wallach had warned as much five years earlier, calling the deal “a job-offshoring, unsafe-import-flooding, ‘Buy America’-killing, food-safety-undermining, drug-price-rising, foreign-corporate-treasury-raiding, financial-deregulating trade agreement” that benefited giant multinational corporations most of all.

Flash forward to six months after Cohn took the letter off Trump’s desk: The administration announces a series of revisions to the Korean trade agreement, calling it “a major win for American workers and American businesses.”

But their net effect is laughable. Renegotiations left key issues that might have made a difference unaddressed, such as the elimination of job outsourcing incentives and addition of serious labor and environmental standards.

Scrapping the deal entirely would have been better for American workers.

Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to be president. He is abusing executive power, violating norms that protect our democracy, and trying to divide and confuse the country.

But the only thing the members of the “resistance” inside the administration seems to care about is protecting themselves — “resisting” Trump’s attacks on the military and its contractors, multinational companies, and orthodox GOP principles Trump didn’t run on and doesn’t share.

What don’t they care about? As Mehdi Hassan wrote this week for the Intercept — in the context of the anonymous Trump official who bragged in the New York Times about being one of the diligent insiders frustrating Trump’s agenda — “The widespread dishonesty, the rampant corruption, the brazen racism, the growing authoritarianism, the accusations of collusion — none of that tops your list of Trumpian abuses and infractions.”

(I’m launching a new version of my White House Watch column soon. Want me to keep you posted? Sign up for my email newsletter.)

Dan Froomkin

On the cusp of a new media-criticism project. Editor of WhiteHouseWatch.com. Online news pioneer at the Washington Post, Huffington Post, the Intercept.

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