Trump Names Goldman President Gary Cohn Director of National Economic Council

Pick follows earlier selection of former Goldman executive Steven Mnuchin to be Treasury Secretary

Updated Dec. 12, 2016 5:33 p.m. ET 4 COMMENTS

WASHINGTON—President-elect Donald Trump announced Monday that he was appointing Goldman Sachs Group Inc. President and Chief Operating Officer Gary Cohn as director of the National Economic Council, a position that will make him one of the most influential voices on economic decisions in the White House.

Donald Trump has named Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn to lead the White House National Economic Council. PHOTO: EVAN VUCCI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mr. Trump, in a statement, said Mr. Cohn would be his “top economic adviser.”

“He will help craft economic policies that will grow wages for our workers, stop the exodus of jobs overseas and create many great new opportunities for Americans who have been struggling,” Mr. Trump said. “He fully understands the economy and will use all of his vast knowledge and experience to make sure the American people start winning again.”

Putting Mr. Cohn in the White House would give Goldman Sachs veterans a major influence in economic decisions. Mr. Trump’s pick to be Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, spent 17 years at Goldman Sachs.

Mr. Cohn called the appointment “a great honor.”

“I share President-elect Trump’s vision of making sure every American worker has a secure place in a thriving economy, and we will be completely committed to building a nation of strength, growth and prosperity,” he said.

The NEC director is one of the most influential economic policy decision makers in the U.S. government, a division of the White House that has in the past been used to brainstorm and craft everything from banking rules to tax policy. At times, there can be tension between the NEC and Treasury Department over who is in the driver’s seat of economic policy decisions, and Mr. Cohn’s presence in the White House on a likely daily basis could boost his influence.

Goldman Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein said in a separate statement “I am confident that Gary will bring his many talents and expertise to the White House and will do his part to make our economy stronger for all Americans.”

The appointment doesn’t require Senate confirmation. The NEC job could serve as a steppingstone to other top government posts, including at the Treasury or Federal Reserve, a leap that has some precedent in past administrations.

The pick of a Goldman executive to head the NEC, the top economic policy-making body in the West Wing, is surprising because Mr. Trump railed against a global power structure and promised to “drain the swamp” of favor-seekers during his election campaign, repeatedly singling out Goldman Sachs as an icon of a corrupt elite.

A campaign video in the final weeks before the election alleging a global plot to take wealth from workers flashed an image of Goldman’s Mr. Blankfein. In addition to Messrs.

Cohn and Mnuchin, top Trump adviser Steve Bannon worked at Goldman.

J.P. Morgan Chief Executive James Dimon, whose name had been floated as a possible candidate for Treasury secretary, said it would be a “huge mistake” for the transition team to disqualify potential appointees because of private-sector ties.

“You want the best ballplayer on the field, and Gary’s an unbelievable ballplayer,” he said in an interview. “You’re talking about putting someone in the room who’s got wide global knowledge of capital​markets, trade, tax​... hopefully ​he ​can help companies create jobs.​”​

Mr. Cohn joined Goldman in 1990 and became a partner in 1994, the same year as Mr. Mnuchin.

Mr. Cohn, the son of a electrician-turned-real estate developer in Ohio, served as Goldman’s operating chief since 2006, a leadership transition set into motion when the then-CEO of the bank, Henry Paulson, was tapped by President George W. Bush to serve as Treasury secretary.

Mr. Cohn, a registered Democrat, isn’t vocally political and has given money to candidates of both parties. Colleagues described him as a nonideological pragmatist, and analysts said the selection indicated diminishing political risks for the biggest banks in a Trump administration.

Mr. Cohn has traveled extensively abroad for Goldman, and his appointment would provide Mr. Trump’s inner circle with an insider well connected to foreign economic ministers, technology executives and banking regulators.

President Bill Clinton created the National Economic Council in 1993 and it has grown to become the most important economic policy-making body across the executive branch.

At times, its director has been as influential as the Treasury secretary or other cabinet posts.

Mr. Clinton tapped another Goldman executive, then-co-chairmanRobert Rubin, as his first NEC director. Mr. Rubin had served at Goldman alongside co-chairman Stephen Friedman, who would later serve Mr. Bush as NEC director from 2002-2005. Mr. Cohn will become the 10th person to head the council and the third to join it from the executive suite at Goldman.

Joining the government would allow Mr. Cohn to sell his Goldman stock tax-deferred. He owned more than 882,000 shares outright and through trusts and other vehicles, according to a Nov. 15 regulatory filing. That stake is worth more than $209 million at current prices, which are just shy of an all-time high reached in October 2007.