Wall Street should be thrilled by a couple of sentences that came out of President Donald Trump‘s mouth on Tuesday before he jetted off to California for an immigration event.
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In confirming reports that he was strongly leaning towards CNBC senior contributor Larry Kudlow as his next National Economic Council director, Trump said he wants different views on free-trade represented in Oval Office debates.
“We don’t agree on everything but in this case I think it’s good,” Trump said. “I want a divergent opinion.”
The remarks put to rest, at least for now, one of the biggest fears gripping investors following the announcement that Gary Cohn, an ardent free-trader and the former president of Goldman Sachs, would soon leave the White House.
The concern was that Trump would replace Cohn with a protectionist likely to only support and confirm the president’s already strong inclination to rip up existing trade deals like NAFTA and slap big tariffs on even some of America’s closest allies.
If Trump had done that, perhaps by elevating trade adviser Peter Navarro to the NEC post, stocks would almost certainly have taken a hit with the risk of NAFTA getting blown up rising along with the likelihood of bitter trade wars.
Kudlow comes very much from the free-trade school even though he’s apparently come to some agreement with Trump that threatening to impose tariffs can be a useful negotiating tactic. Kudlow will fight hard to keep the U.S. in NAFTA and could nudge the president toward finding a way back into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, potentially using the argument that it would be a good way to counter China’s rise as the dominant trade player in the Pacific rim.
But most importantly, Kudlow will not be a doormat.
He may not have Cohn’s outsized, aggressive personality but administration officials who think they will be able to walk over Kudlow are in for a big surprise. He can make the arguments for the benefits of free and fair trade better than almost anyone and he will be formidable in front of the president in showdowns with Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who both favor more aggressive protectionism.
The main reason Trump wants Kudlow is that he is good on TV. Trump regularly complains that he does not have enough talented communicators defending him on television, which is the primary way the president relates to the outside world.
Television skill is an important role for an NEC director who has to sell the public on the president’s policies and their impact on the economy. But it’s not all the likely next NEC director brings to the table.
He’s also got strong relationships with both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill which could come in handy in future budget talks or legislative efforts on immigration and infrastructure. Kudlow’s friend and fellow outside Trump adviser Stephen Moore told me those relationships are among Kudlow’s top qualities.
“He brings a couple big assets to the table,” he said. “One, he is a great communicator of economics, one of the best in the country, especially for the free-market ideas that Trump is mostly espousing. And two, Larry has really great relationships with members of Congress, certainly on the Republican side but also among Democrats who may disagree with him but like him. He doesn’t really have any enemies.”
Nothing is ever done until Trump makes an announcement. But Kudlow seems as close to a lock for the NEC job as it’s possible to get in Trump World. And the formal announcement should at least give a mild bump to stocks even as investors worry about chaos elsewhere in the administration including the abrupt firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the ouster of Trump personal aide Johnny McEntee, reportedly the subject of a financial investigation.
Trump’s White House will always feature plenty of reality show drama. But at least in the economic realm, he appears set to name someone respected by investors and likely to continue to carry the banner of free trade in an administration tilting of late to mercantilism.
—Ben White is Politico’s chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.