Kudlow brings kill ’em with kindness approach to White House

 In Politics

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.

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“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!”

It was not immediately clear what he meant or whether the effort could slow down the talks, which are precarious. Negotiations started out on a “very hostile” note, Kudlow said. He said it helped that one of the high-level Chinese trade negotiators recognized him from his years as a CNBC commentator.

With tricky trade dynamics to juggle on both sides of the globe, Kudlow’s style appears tailored to fit a president who does not care about the details of the policymaking process but values relationships and enjoys seeing his ideas vigorously defended on television. But Kudlow’s approach has left some critics complaining that he has abandoned other aspects of the NEC director role, though allies say he merely has a different style from Cohn’s.

Some staffers grumble that the rigorous policy process put in place by Cohn when he was NEC director is gone and that spending time with Trump and on TV is not sufficient to oversee the administration’s economic decision-making.

“Gary wanted to be at the center of coordinating and implementing policy,” said one former administration official. “Kudlow is OK at just being one voice in the room and seems more interested in outcomes than coordinating the process. But in this administration, you need some leadership and organization.”

Even people outside the White House who like and admire Kudlow say the NEC needs more hands-on management than he’s undertaken so far.

“Ninety five percent of the job is a grinding staff job, with sleeves rolled and managing a process,” said Tony Fratto, a former Treasury and White House official under George W. Bush who later founded the consulting firm Hamilton Place Strategies. “From here, it looks like Larry’s turned it into that mythical NEC director job where you spend 95 percent of your time with the president and talking about policy and telling people how it is.”

Kudlow acknowledges that maintaining proximity to Trump is central to how he does the job and that he is spending most of his time on trade, even though the NEC is also responsible for financial regulation, technology, energy, taxes and infrastructure, among other policy areas.

He said he’s taken that approach because the ultimate arbiter of the policymaking process is the president, not any senior staffer.

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