The first iteration of Donald Trump’s cabinet reflected the president’s deep inexperience with politics and his need to appease mainstream Republicans after a divisive primary and general election campaign. That cabinet was called the “Committee to Save America” or simply the “adults in the room.” These people—Jim Mattis, H.R. McMaster, Gary Cohn, Dina Powell, Rex Tillerson—represented the establishment on issues of economics and national security. They were focused on providing a modicum of stability in the midst of the tempest that is Donald Trump; on mitigating the president’s temper, wild instincts, and mercurial moods. Though they were never particularly successful at it, they were genuine advisers, inward-facing. They communicated to the press either through well-rehearsed Sunday show appearances or through leaks.
This group has been replaced by a more outwardly focused cabinet, featuring cable news pundits like Larry Kudlow and John Bolton in prominent roles. These changes are reportedly the result of the president’s growing confidence. “A dozen people close to Mr. Trump or the White House, including current and former aides and longtime friends, described him as newly emboldened to say what he really feels and to ignore the cautions of those around him,” The New York Times reported in mid-March. “That self-confidence has led to a series of surprising comments and actions that have pushed the Trump presidency in an ever more tumultuous direction.”
That tumult is now coming from multiple sources. The people Trump has surrounded himself with are cable news brawlers, not so much advisers as megaphones for the administration. The changes in the cabinet are best represented by Kudlow, whose public statements since assuming Cohn’s job as head of the National Economic Council encapsulate the new level of chaos gripping the administration.
Kudlow’s impact was seen most recently in an astonishing 72-hour period of dysfunction relating to proposed sanctions against Russia. On Sunday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced on Face the Nation that the administration would be responding to the chemical attack in Syria that occurred earlier this month with new sanctions against Russia and Iran. Haley was using White House talking points but, according to the Times, the president “grew angry” as he watched her make the announcement, believing that he had not approved the action.
A day later, the White House contradicted Haley, saying she was incorrect and that sanctions were not forthcoming. On Tuesday, Kudlow told reporters that Haley’s statement was the result of “momentary confusion,” implying that the mistake was hers. Haley clapped back later that night, telling Fox News’s Dana Perino: “I don’t get confused.” Kudlow, with his tail between his legs, then made a sort of mea culpa, telling the Times, “As it turns out, she was basically following what she thought was policy. The policy was changed, and she wasn’t told about it.”
Even for the Trump White House, this was a staggering series of mistakes, all occurring in view of the public, as opposed to within the confines of the West Wing. That they involved Haley, a member of Cabinet 1.0 who until this point has been one of the administration’s most reliable voices, only made them more remarkable.
These kinds of snafus are inevitable in the cable news–oriented cabinet that Trump has put together. In this cabinet, people like Kudlow are playing an unending game of Whack-a-Mole with rapidly changing events, speaking to cameras before coordinating a strategy with other officials.
Last week, Kudlow was tasked by the president with re-joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump had abandoned with great fanfare upon entering office in 2017. He told Fox News’s Lou Dobbs that he was giving the trade agreement a “fresh look.” Then, six days later, he described the move as more of a “thought than a policy,” doing an about-face on the country’s trade policy for the second time in a week.
At the same time, Kudlow was downplaying worries that the United States was about to enter into a trade war with China—and strongly hinting that Trump was bluffing about slapping $100 billion in tariffs on China.
Kudlow channeled his inner Trump on Fox & Friends when asked about a Congressional Budget Office report showing that the president’s tax bill would explode the deficit by $2 trillion. “Never believe the CBO,” Kudlow said. “Very important: Never believe them. They’re always wrong, especially with regard to tax cuts.” But, during the Obama administration, Kudlow repeatedly cited CBO numbers regarding sequestration, Obamacare, and (especially) the deficit.
Speaking from Mar-a-Lago on Monday, Kudlow proclaimed, “We’re in early stages of an economic boom here in the United States!” We are, in fact, in the ninth year of an economic recovery. And we may be nearing the end of the economic expansion that began under President Obama, according to certain economic indicators.
Kudlow has made a career out of being wrong. Before replacing “globalist” Gary Cohn as Trump’s economic adviser in the spring, Kudlow was arguably the worst economic pundit in the country, with a track record of bad predictions and analysis stretching back decades. He predicted Bill Clinton’s increase of the 1993 top tax rate would “depress the economy” (it preceded a boom); that the Bush tax cuts would result in budget surpluses (they resulted in deficits); and, in 2007 and 2008, that a recession was definitely not on the horizon (whoops).
But now that he’s there, Kudlow’s errors, misstatements, and exaggerations are wreaking havoc on U.S. policy. In the case of the Russia sanctions and TPP, there are serious domestic and foreign policy repercussions when an entire administration—not just a Twitter feed—makes whiplash-inducing changes. The decision on Russia went from the Treasury Department announcing sanctions on Sunday, to reports that the White House had reached out to the Russian embassy on Tuesday to declare that no sanctions were planned. The administration reversed itself on TPP in six days.
Kudlow’s frequent presence on cable television made things decidedly worse, with the administration seemingly making public policy in real time, in front of hundreds of thousands of people, without making sure that everyone was on board and on the same page. The fact that Kudlow is so wrong so consistently is a problem for the Trump administration. Not because he has Trump’s ear—because he has the world’s.