Who has the inside track to replace Gary Cohn, the recently resigned chair of Donald Trump’s National Economic Council? There’s no better source than the Decider In Chief himself, who tipped his hand to the press this morning while discussing Rex Tillerson’s abrupt departure. As has been widely speculated, Trump’s considering former CNBC host (and currently “senior contributor”) Larry Kudlow to take over, but Trump offered what should be a warning to the well-known and popular conservative economist:
President Trump says he's looking at Larry Kudlow "very strongly" to replace Gary Cohn as his chief economic adviser. pic.twitter.com/Wn0igIOLBW
— NBC News (@NBCNews) March 13, 2018
“I’ve known him a long time. We don’t agree on everything,” he said.
“But in this case, I think that’s good.”
Trump, who argued he wants differing opinions in the White House, said Kudlow has “come around to believing in tariffs as also a negotiating point.”
“I’m renegotiating great deals. Without tariffs, we wouldn’t do nearly as well.”
Well, he and Cohn didn’t agree on everything either, and look what happened to him. For that matter, look what happened to Rex Tillerson earlier today, whose disagreements with the president led him to discover he was unemployed … by reading Trump’s Twitter account. Disagreements with the boss tend to be terminal to careers in this administration, as they have been in many if not most others. Rarely have those terminations been quite as spectacular as in this White House, though.
Kudlow still has competition for the slot, the New York Daily News reports:
Possible contenders have include Trump’s protectionist trade adviser Peter Navarro, Chris Liddell, who serves as the White House’s director of strategic initiatives, Shahira Knight, Cohn’s deputy at the National Economic Council and Andy Puzder, who withdrew his nomination to be labor secretary over abuse allegations made by his ex-wife.
But Kudlow appears to be the frontrunner.
Trump noted that Kudlow, an advocate of free trade, is a longtime friend who an early supporter of his 2016 presidential campaign.
Navarro clearly has the president’s ear these days, but naming him to the top spot is probably off the table; Republicans in Congress would make it too messy. Puzder might be a better fit and could even share more of Trump’s views on protectionism, but that would depend on whether he wants a replay of the beating he took last year before withdrawing from consideration at Labor. That would have required Senate confirmation, whereas the NEC appointment does not, which might make replacing Cohn more attractive to the fast-food baron.
Besides, it’s worth asking just how far Trump thinks Kudlow has come around on tariffs. Ten days ago, he joined Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore to publicly call on Trump to reconsider them:
President Trump genuinely believes that his steel and aluminum tariffs will save thousands of blue collar jobs. And we know from our interactions with him that he truly cares about these workers in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other rust belt states.
The American people do as well, and we don’t want factories to shut down. But even if tariffs save every one of the 140,000 or so steel jobs in America, it puts at risk 5 million manufacturing and related jobs in industries that use steel. These producers now have to compete in hyper-competitive international markets using steel that is 20 percent above the world price and aluminum that is 7 to 10 percent above the price paid by our foreign rivals.
In other words, steel and aluminum may win in the short term, but steel and aluminum users and consumers will lose. In fact, tariff hikes are really tax hikes. …
Trump should continue to make American producers more competitive in global markets through tax, regulatory, energy, and other pro-America policy changes that bring jobs and capital back to the United States. That is happening at a furious pace right now as Trump has made America almost overnight the best and most reliable place in the world to invest. Steel and aluminum import tariffs work decisively against this goal.
Kudlow has hailed Trump’s performance consistently — but not on trade, CNN points out:
Kudlow wrote last December for CNBC that “Trump and the GOP are on the side of the growth angels with the passage of powerful tax-cut legislation to boost business investment, wages, and take-home family pay. The Democrats, meanwhile, are left with stale class-warfare slogans about tax cuts for the rich.”
And in an appearance on CNBC earlier this month, Kudlow said that Trump was “so good on taxes, he’s so good on tax cuts, he’s so good on deregulation, infrastructure — I even like him on immigration.”
But Kudlow ended his comments with this zinger about Trump. “He’s never been good on trade.”
Frankly, it’s not clear why either man would consider this. Kudlow would want to move economic policy to the right and away from populism, which would be … not much different than Cohn, in practice anyway. Kudlow would be assured of a soft landing after leaving the administration, of course, but why go through the effort with such a fundamental difference in approach up front? Kudlow might think that he would at least keep Navarro from landing the job, but can he peel Navarro away from a protectionist-minded president? It doesn’t seem likely, but it’s at least a mission.
This sounds like it’s close to a done deal, though. Best of luck to Larry if it goes through, but he’d better take Bette Davis’ advice: Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.