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Gary Cohn. Photo: Michael Reynolds/Pool/Getty Images

Trade has been the Trump administration's biggest internal policy fight. For more than a year, senior officials met weekly in the Roosevelt Room, and occasionally with Trump in the Situation Room and Oval Office, to hash out differences.

Gary Cohn, Trump's economic adviser until April and fellow "globalists" — a small group that included Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and former Staff Secretary Rob Porter — were often forced into a defensive crouch, trying to beat back the hardliners' ideas in real time in front of the president.

Cohn fought hardest in these meetings, according to sources in the room, calling Navarro a liar and telling him he knew nothing about economics.

I spoke to Cohn this week about his role in challenging Navarro, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and ultimately the president over their dedication to tariffs as a tool in trade negotiations:

  • Sources say Cohn internally acquiesced to putting tariffs on washing machines and solar panels but fought tooth and nail, and ultimately resigned, over Trump's decision to impose massive tariffs on steel and aluminum.
  • Cohn said he's not opposed to tariffs in every situation, but views tariffs on inputs rather than finished goods as economically disastrous because they affect so many industries.

Cohn says flatly that trade deficits don't matter.

  • "China is producing goods, not services, that we want to buy and they're producing them cheaper than we can produce them ourselves. 
  • "The old smokestacks that we used to have in the United States in the 1950s ... have moved to China, because people didn't like working in those environments."

Cohn disagrees with the idea that America needs a domestic steel industry for its national defense:

  • He says it's unlikely America will go to war with allies like Canada from whom the U.S. imports steel. 
  • "We're not fighting a 1950s war anymore with tanks on the ground ... Look how effectively we're doing in North Korea with sanctions. Look at cyber. The computer is more powerful than any piece of steel."

Bottom line: Cohn worries that by putting tariffs on steel and aluminum, Trump will ultimately hurt American farmers and consumers, because China and other countries will retaliate by putting higher tariffs on U.S. agriculture.

Go deeper

Toyota to build $1.3 billion U.S. battery plant in North Carolina

The all-electric Toyota bZ4X, the company's first battery-electric vehicle, at the Los Angeles Auto Show in Los Angeles, California on Nov. 17. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Toyota announced Monday it's investing $1.3 billion to construct an electric vehicle battery "megasite" near Greensboro, North Carolina, set to open in 2025.

Why it matters: Toyota's Prius hybrid won environmental plaudits when it launched in 1997, but it has since lost ground to electric vehicle world leader Tesla, per Axios' Joann Muller. This battery plant will be the first to produce automotive batteries for Toyota in North America.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Congress hunts for shortcut to pass defense funding, debt limit combo

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer returned to his office Monday. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The scramble in Congress to pass the National Defense Authorization Act is being complicated by an effort to tie it to a needed hike in the federal debt limit.

Why it matters: The House and Senate are rapidly coming up against a series of deadlines they must address before the end of the year — or risk disrupting crucial military funding and upending the economy. Congressional leaders are now hoping they can knock out both "must-pass" priorities in one, complex swoop.

Scoop: Inside Jake Sullivan's call with U.S. hostages' families

Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

National security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke last week with relatives of U.S. hostages and others wrongfully detained abroad, after more than two dozen families expressed frustrations about their inability to get a meeting with him or President Biden, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Participants on the video call, which began at 7pm ET Friday and lasted more than an hour, told Axios they didn't get satisfactory answers to many of their questions. Nonetheless, they were encouraged by Sullivan's commitment to follow up and pledge to be personally available to them and others going forward.

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