Gary Cohn, President Trump’s former top economic adviser, and Heidi Heitkamp, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota, got to know one another when he was president of Goldman Sachs and she was on the Senate Banking Committee.
Both agreed, Cohn said, that overregulation of small- and mid-size banks had “stifled growth in middle America.”
Next month, Cohn, a Democrat who resigned from the Trump administration last year, and Heitkamp, who just lost her Senate seat, will head to Harvard’s Institute of Politics, where they will co-lead a study group, called “The Real State of the Union,” to explore budgetary challenges and health care and trade policy.
The former senator and former Trump aide will be two of the institute’s 10 new fellows, a group that hopes to model civility and the free exchange of ideas at a time when bitter political divisions have led to the longest government shutdown in history.
“When you lead with ideology and you paint yourself into a corner, you miss an opportunity to solve problems,” Heitkamp said Wednesday in a joint phone interview with Cohn. “That’s a major theme of the work we’re doing with the IOP.”
The list of fellows, announced Wednesday, also includes:
■ Barbara Comstock of Virginia and Carlos Curbelo of Florida, two Republican House members in swing districts who lost their seats in November, when the Democrats reclaimed the House.
■ Mitch Landrieu, a former mayor of New Orleans who gained national attention for removing four Confederate monuments and has been mentioned as a potential Democratic presidential candidate.
■ Michael Nutter, a Democrat and former mayor of Philadelphia.
■ Aisha Moodie-Mills, a former president and chief executive of the Victory Fund, which seeks to elect LGBTQ candidates.
■ Catherine Russell, a former ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues under President Obama.
There will be no shortage of issues for the fellows to discuss. The government shutdown, occurring as Trump demands funding for a border wall, might provide one clear object lesson in Washington dysfunction.
Cohn, in the interview, sharply criticized the ongoing shutdown, calling it “completely wrong,” and said the furloughing of thousands of federal workers “makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.”
“I don’t understand what the outcome is here, and I don’t understand where we’re going with it,” said Cohn, a free-trade advocate who resigned last March after Trump announced he was imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. “I’m confused as to what the White House’s strategy is on this a little bit.”
Heitkamp echoed the point, calling the shutdown a “manufactured crisis” that “sucks the oxygen out of the room.”
Cohn’s appointment is noteworthy because the institute faced a backlash in 2017 when it named as fellows two other Trump aides: Corey Lewandowski, the president’s former campaign manager, and Sean Spicer, former White House press secretary.
More than 2,600 Harvard alumni signed an open letter calling on the university to rescind the fellowships. The letter accused the institute of giving moral and intellectual legitimacy to “those who have done much to degrade public discourse in this country, re-ignite white nationalism, and further reactionary policies that harm millions.”
Kennedy School officials did not rescind the fellowships for Lewandowski and Spicer. School officials have emphasized that they want to bring fellows from across the political spectrum to Cambridge, in hopes of sparking debate and challenging students.
That’s why the latest group includes Republicans and Democrats, activists and elected officials, said Mark Gearan, the institute’s director.
“This is quite an extraordinary group that will be here that I think really matches the times in which we live,” Gearan said. “These are divisive and challenging times so our role is all the more important.”