Gary Cohn may have been the “Last Jedi” (according to Citi), but he has picked a Knight to replace him.
Confirming rumors that emerged earlier in the week, Politico reports that the now former White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn is focusing on one more thing he wants to do before he leaves his post: help President Donald Trump pick his successor, and it appears he is eager to preserve the continuity set by his short, tax-free tenure.
According to Politico sources, the candidate Cohn is pushing for is his deputy director of domestic policy, Shahira Knight — a former Hill staffer and ex-lobbyist — as his replacement as National Economic Council director.
Best known for her May 2017 Bloomberg profile as “The Economist Who Helped Write Trump’s Tax Plan in Five Days“, Knight is the NEC’s resident tax expert, who was integral to working with lawmakers to develop the historic tax legislation; more importantly unlike Peter Navarro, she is said to have “allies throughout the Hill and downtown.” One Republican lobbyist said she has “the inside track if she wants it.”
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.
Knight’s biggest competitor is said to be Larry Kudlow, a former associate director for economics and planning in the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan and 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.”
Knight faces another challenge: Trump himself. If picked, she will have to fight “to ensure the roughly 30-person NEC team stays in the policymaking loop in a nontraditional White House where Trump often prefers to make decisions solo.”
To be sure, Gary’s opinion will carry a lot of weight with Trump, who praised the former Goldman COO in a press conference on Thursday:
“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.”
Still, as Politico notes, this week’s fight over tariffs – which ended up being substantially watered down prompted amused comments if Gary may not come back himself – “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.
And speaking of Navarro, as Axios reported yesterday, the China hawk is also said to want the position. “He is well-liked by Trump because he often tells the president what the president already believes, said Winfree, the former administration official.”
That said, Cohn resignation and Navarro’s ascent may be a catalyst for more depatures: at least three NEC staffers are said to be 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.
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.
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 Gov. Kevin Warsh, but Warsh is said by those who know him to not be interested in the position.
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.
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According to Politico 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.”