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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during Friday’s press briefing that she didn’t think “anyone was surprised” by National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn’s criticism of President Donald Trump’s response to the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month.
Sanders was pressed repeatedly on Cohn’s comments. Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, told the Financial Times that “this administration can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups and do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities.”
Cohn, who is Jewish, said he felt compelled “to voice my distress over the events of the last two weeks.”
“Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK,” Cohn said, adding that after Trump’s press conference during which he painted both sides of the protests as deserving of blame, he felt “enormous pressure” both to resign and to stay in the administration.
“Gary has not held back what his feelings are if you’ll let me finish,” Sanders said in response to a question from Fox News’ John Roberts. “Gary has not held back how he feels about the situation, he’s been very open and honest. So I don’t think anyone was surprised by the comments.”
Sanders also made a point of noting that most of Cohn’s interview focused on tax reform, the legislative priority of Congress and the administration at the moment.
“Look, I think everybody wants to focus on a really small part of that interview,” she said, adding that “95% of that interview was on tax reform.”
“We’re looking at a very small portion of it,” she said.
She declined to go into detail about any “specific conversations” Trump had with Cohn on the subject.
“But the president’s been very outspoken in his condemnation of racism and bigotry and hate of all forms,” she said. “But I think that as long as those things exist, there is always more we can do. We should be looking for and we will be looking for ways we can do more as an administration. Until there is zero of those things there is more you can do.”
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was also pressed on Cohn’s comments Friday, as he was present during the briefing and addressed reporters before Sanders.
He pointed to his statement from last week on his “view of the situation,” when he said the he was compelled to let you know that the president in no way, shape or form, believes that neo-Nazi and other hate groups who endorse violence are equivalent to groups that demonstrate in peaceful and lawful ways.”
“I think there is no question the president was not equating the hate groups with people who were [protesting] peacefully,” Mnuchin said. “And under no circumstances was I going to resign.”
He said Cohn is “committed to be here” and said he is working closely with the national economic adviser on tax reform. Both Cohn and Mnuchin worked at Goldman Sachs prior to joining the administration.