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How Trump defends his Goldman Sachs advisers: "I just don't want a poor person"

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

On Wednesday night, at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, President Donald Trump made a remarkable statement: Poor people, he claimed, have no business making public policy.

Defending his choice of former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn as his top economic adviser, and billionaire financier Wilbur Ross as his secretary of commerce, Trump told the audience, "Somebody said, ‘Why did you appoint a rich person to be in charge of the economy?’ No, it’s true. And Wilbur’s a very rich person in charge of commerce. I said: ‘Because that’s the kind of thinking we want.’ … They had to give up a lot to take those jobs.”

“And I love all people, rich or poor, but in those particular positions I just don’t want a poor person. Does that make sense?" he clarified.

On the one hand, Trump is defending, in an unusually brazen fashion, the longstanding practice, shared by both Democratic and Republican administrations, of giving economic policy jobs to very rich people. The secretary of commerce is usually a wealthy campaign donor; Ross’s predecessor under President Barack Obama was billionaire business executive and Hyatt hotels heiress Penny Pritzker. Cohn's predecessor under Obama was Jeffrey Zients, a wealthy investor and former CEO of the Advisory Board consulting group. The banker and JPMorgan executive William Daley served as Bill Clinton's commerce secretary and Obama's chief of staff; Robert Rubin, the former co-chair of Goldman Sachs, was Clinton's longest-serving Treasury secretary and before that held Cohn and Zients’s position as chair of the National Economic Council.

This matters. Duke political scientist Nicholas Carnes has found that fewer and fewer working-class people with blue collar backgrounds are serving in Congress, and that this has profound implications for their votes once in office.

"Legislators who worked primarily in white-collar jobs before getting elected to Congress — especially profit-oriented jobs in the private sector — tend to vote with business interests far more often than legislators who worked primarily in blue-collar jobs," Carnes writes. "At every level of government, in every time period and in every stage of the legislative process, the shortage of lawmakers from the working class tilts economic policy in favor of the conservative outcomes that more affluent Americans prefer."

But it appears to especially matter for Trump. His comments come after the House passage of a bill he supported which would strip health coverage from 14 million working poor people on Medicaid, and would cut $880 billion from the program, permanently changing its structure so that it doesn’t grow with patients’ medical needs. Trump spoke as the Senate was finalizing its version of the health bill, which will reportedly include deeper cuts to Medicaid by using a different, slower-growing inflation measure.

Trump has also proposed a budget that includes $2.5 trillion in cuts to programs for low and moderate-income people — nearly three-fifths of all the cuts in the budget. He would slash food stamps, the safety net of last resort for extremely poor Americans, by a quarter, as well as Social Security benefits for disabled workers, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Supplemental Security Income for poor seniors and disabled people. The budget adds another $610 billion in Medicaid cuts on top of the health bill's, amounting to an over 47 percent cut to Medicaid overall.

No president in modern memory — not Reagan, not Clinton — has proposed cuts that would do more to increase deprivation and misery among poor Americans than Donald Trump. And in the wake of these choices, Trump is telling his voters, “I just don’t want a poor person” giving him economic policy advice.

He finally made that explicit, but his beliefs have long been obvious — Trump’s utter indifference to the preferences of poor people was already implied in every decision he has made since taking office.

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