SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
The longtime TV economic analyst Larry Kudlow is being tapped to be President Trump's top economic adviser. Kudlow, who appears on CNBC, will replace Gary Cohn as chairman of the National Economic Council. Cohn announced his departure from the White House last week after coming out on the losing end of a battle over imposing sweeping steel and aluminum tariffs. Kudlow, like Cohn, also opposed those tariffs, but Trump likes him anyway. Here's what he said Tuesday about Kudlow.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to have a divergent opinion. We agree on most. He now has come around to believing in tariffs as also a negotiating point.
MCCAMMON: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now from the White House. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Sarah.
MCCAMMON: So Mara, is Trump right? Has Kudlow changed his mind on tariffs?
LIASSON: Not completely. Kudlow has been very adamant. He has said that raising tariffs is the same thing as raising taxes, and he thinks across-the-board tariffs, especially ones against our allies instead of just ones targeted to the really bad actors, is the wrong policy. And this is the reason why, as you said, Gary Cohn resigned. But a source close to Kudlow says that even though he hasn't changed his supply side, free market, free trade views, he has come to believe that now that Trump has given Canada and Mexico and Australia exemptions from these tariffs, that Trump is using them not to spark an all-out trade war but more as a negotiating tactic.
And Kudlow was in his - on his podcast a couple of days ago, and he said, Trump comes at you like he's going to punch you in the teeth with these tariffs. Then he pulls back and starts making deals. Here's what he said.
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LARRY KUDLOW: That looks to me like what he's doing here on tariffs. He comes out really hard and strong, scares everybody. Then he starts to pull back, withdraw.
LIASSON: And Trump, if - he says if Trump is willing to use these tariffs just to get a better NAFTA deal, for instance, with Canada and Mexico - friends of Kudlow says that's something Kudlow can live with. He wants to keep NAFTA going, but he's willing to modernize it.
MCCAMMON: But given that they don't necessarily see eye to eye on tariffs, what is the appeal of Kudlow for President Trump?
LIASSON: As Trump said yesterday, he's known Kudlow for a long time. Kudlow worked for Ronald Reagan. He was once the top economist at Bear Stearns. He's a longtime television personality on CNBC. He's a New Yorker. And really important - he was one of Trump's original backers. Trump pointed this out yesterday. We know Trump values loyalty. And during the campaign, Trump used Larry Kudlow like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. He would say Larry Kudlow likes my tax plan. Larry Kudlow probably helped him design the tax plan. But also, Kudlow is an enthusiastic supporter of every other part of Trump's economic agenda - the tax cuts and deregulation. He just differs with him on trade.
MCCAMMON: So with all the other changes we're seeing this week like replacing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Mara, what's your takeaway from all these staff moves?
LIASSON: Well, one takeaway is that it isn't as simple as just Trump wanting nationalists or people who agree with him. At first glance, it might appear that way. But Kudlow is - he's not a protectionist. So Trump likes a team of rivals. And as he said yesterday, I want divergent opinions. It's also in part about comfort level and chemistry. And he likes the debate that's happening inside the White House right now. You still have Peter Navarro and Bob Lighthizer and Wilbur Ross. They are on the more protectionist side.
And I was told by an outside adviser to Trump that he's still trying to thread the needle on trade. He's still obsessed with the trade deficit. He still sees it like a score card and a zero-sum game, not as an indication of comparative advantage. But he doesn't want to hurt the stock market, and that's one of the reasons he wants someone like Larry Kudlow there with him.
You saw this also with Mike Pompeo. He's replacing Rex Tillerson at the State Department, and he's somebody that Trump is very comfortable with. Donald Trump did not come into office with a ready-made network of Cabinet members. Now he's getting his sea legs, and as he said yesterday, we're getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.
MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Mara Liasson at the White House. Thanks, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.