Larry Kudlow thinks he can steer Donald Trump’s chaotic White House away from economic disaster by being the nicest guy in the West Wing.
Unlike Gary Cohn, his hard-charging predecessor at the helm of the National Economic Council, Kudlow doesn’t yell. He doesn’t have a reputation for knifing policy opponents in the press or badmouthing them to colleagues, as do many aides in the fractious administration.
“I have opinions, which I will share with the president,” Kudlow, an avowed free-trade supporter in a mostly protectionist White House, said in an interview Friday in his office on the second floor of the West Wing. “But I don’t keep people out of meetings. It’s not my style. So, I guess you might say I’m lower-keyed. I’m quite respectful of disagreements.”
Instead, he’s trying to avoid the collapse of the North American Free Trade Agreement and a bitter trade war with China — both of which could scramble the world’s economic power map — by seeking consensus with colleagues who are inclined to impose stricter trade barriers, staying close to his boss and wooing members of Congress.
Even Kudlow doesn’t know if it will work.
He spoke with POLITICO as U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer was locked in meetings with Mexican and Canadian counterparts on renegotiating NAFTA. The meetings produced no breakthroughs. The White House faces a May 17 deadline set by House Speaker Paul Ryan to submit a deal with the U.S.’ nearest neighbors to Congress.
A NAFTA collapse could send shock waves through markets, destabilize American supply chains and stifle the impact of Trump’s new tax cuts. Kudlow sounded less than optimistic that NAFTA will survive.
“I don’t know if we are going to get a deal. You are talking to the guy who is the optimist and the happy warrior, and as we meet now, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t even want to go with the usual Kudlow optimist. I can’t go there.”
At the same time, the administration is also negotiating with China, which Trump has long argued takes advantage of the U.S. in trade. He has already slapped tariffs on imports of aluminum and steel, saying U.S. national security is at risk, and targeted thousands of other Chinese products for new trade barriers due to complaints about intellectual property theft. Kudlow was part of a recent U.S. delegation to Beijing for talks to resolve the standoff.
Trump’s communications about China have at times confused the negotiations. On Sunday, he tweeted that he was working directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping to “give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!”