White House economic adviser Gary Cohn has one more thing he wants to do before he leaves his post: help Trump pick his successor.
Behind the scenes, one candidate Cohn is pushing is his deputy director of domestic policy, Shahira Knight – a former Hill staffer and ex-lobbyist – to replace him as director of the National Economic Council, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
As the NEC’s resident tax expert, she was integral to working with lawmakers to develop the historic tax legislation and has allies throughout the Hill and downtown. One Republican lobbyist said she had “the inside track if she wants it.” Knight did not respond to a request for comment.
Whoever inherits the job faces the challenge of retaining the same level of influence as Cohn did. The former Goldman Sachs banker and New York Democrat turned the non-Senate confirmed slot into a powerhouse position and quickly became a “killer” in Trump parlance, who the president largely viewed as a peer.
Toward the top of the short list is also Larry Kudlow, a former associate director for economics and planning in the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan who’s now a CNBC pundit and informal adviser to the president. He also keeps close ties to Cohn. But Kudlow has openly rejected Trump’s tariffs push—leading some to say he’ll never get the job.
The new director will have to fight to ensure the roughly 30-person NEC team stays in the policymaking loop in a non-traditional White House where Trump often prefers to make decisions solo.
“Gary had the ability to bond with the president in a special way,” said Paul Winfree, Trump’s former deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council, now director of the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. “The president respected Gary’s past life and present. They are both rich guys from New York.”
Winfree added: “Gary was also able to bring a certain credibility to the policy discussions based on his life. He could say, ‘Mr. President, I know this works because I’ve seen it work with my own eyes.’ And the president believed him because Gary had clearly made a livelihood practicing what he preached. I suspect that a similar personality would have similar influence.”
Cohn was also able to amass power early on by assembling a powerful group of experienced policy experts that included longtime Washington wonks and operatives, at a time when other agencies were understaffed while waiting for nominees to be confirmed.
But this week’s fight over tariffs exposed the limits of Cohn’s influence. Whoever succeeds him will have to contend with the ascendance of White House aides like Stephen Miller and Peter Navarro who favor tighter immigration restrictions and more protectionist trade measures – anathema to economists, many business executives and Wall Street.
“The greatest challenge someone in this White House faces, whether it is Gary or his successor, is that it’s hard to have a thoughtful policy process that sees several steps down the road, if you do not have a president willing to engage,” said Gene Sperling, NEC director under both presidents Clinton and Obama. “What you saw last week was a more extreme version of policy guerilla warfare.”
At least three NEC staffers are considering leaving the White House within the next few months, according to three people with close White House ties. More could follow depending on Cohn’s successor.
Many NEC staffers have privately told friends and associates they would quit if Navarro, the White House’s resident trade hawk, got the job – a possibility that one senior administration official called a long shot.
Another senior administration official said of Navarro getting the NEC job: “No chance.”
Navarro, however, is said to want the position. He is well-liked by the president because he often tells the President what the President already believes, said Winfree, the former administration official.
There’s also a sense among some administration officials that the White House has yet to hit on a candidate with enough gravitas needed to lead the NEC in the Trump era and must dig deeper for candidates.
At a White House briefing on Wednesday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to comment on prospective candidates. “I’m not going to get into any naming or a list, but I can tell you that the president has a number of people under consideration, and he’s going to take his time making that decision,” she said.
Kudlow knows Trump well from advising his team on economics during the 2016 campaign and helping to draft an early iteration of the president’s tax plan.
As Republicans advanced their tax legislation on Capitol Hill this fall, Kudlow played a key role in quietly lobbying Republican lawmakers through dinners and private meetings on the need for a lower corporate tax rate and move to a different type of international tax system.
That work helped him build up good will throughout Washington, as Kudlow became closely associated with the legislative highlight of Trump’s first year.
Now the problem for Kudlow is that he firmly believes in free markets and has been publicly critical of tariffs on steel and aluminum, just as Trump is set to impose them with exemptions for certain countries.
Kudlow declined to comment on speculation about the NEC job.
About his disagreements with Trump, Kudlow said, “I’m not opposed to all tariffs, I don’t know if people know that. I just happened to be opposed to this particular action.”
Other names in the mix include OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and the head of the Council of Economic Advisers Kevin Hassett. Few in the administration want to move either men from their current posts, since they are widely viewed as competent and even-keeled.
Other names mentioned include Robert Steel, an investment banker and former Goldman Sachs executive who served in the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. It’s not clear if Steel would be interested in the job.
Press reports have also mentioned former Federal Reserve governor Kevin Warsh, but Warsh is said by those who know him to not be interested in the position.
Cohn is expected to advise the president on the pick and help with the transition – with input from Cabinet members such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, other economic advisers, and Trump’s unofficial kitchen cabinet of longtime friends, real estate developers and businessmen.
But White House officials like to remind outsiders that the president is surrounded by smart, capable aides but that none of them – no matter how competent they seem – are as important to the American public as the president himself.
“At the end of the day, the American people voted overwhelmingly for President Donald J. Trump,” Sanders said. “They voted for his policies, his agenda, and for him to be the ultimate decision maker.”