Breakfast with the ‘referee’ of Trump economic policy

Kevin Hassett, the White House’s chief economist, talked deficits, taxes, and trade - and what it’s like to work with President Trump.

Matt Orlando/The Christian Science Monitor

As the chief White House economist, Kevin Hassett performs a very important policy role. That was reason enough to have him come speak at the Monitor Breakfast.
 
But I was also curious about something else: what it’s like working with President Trump.
 
So at our breakfast on April 26, amid all the serious discussion about deficits, taxes, and trade, I threw in this question: How often do you talk to the president?
 
“I’m not supposed to talk about that,” Mr. Hassett replied, smiling. But then he kept talking. “I have spoken with him many, many, many times, and I very much enjoy doing so. He really likes to be in meetings where there are a lot of different points of view.”
 
Hassett described the Council of Economic Advisers, which he chairs, as the “referee” on policy proposals. “Our job is to provide objective analysis, to say what the literature says, to talk about the data,” he said. At one meeting, Mr. Trump told everyone in the room to “shut up and don’t talk to Kevin before he asks a question.”
 
It’s those details that, for me, make the Monitor Breakfast special.
 
I also appreciate the regional and beat reporters at the table who shape the conversation as well. New York and New Jersey reporters zeroed in on how tax reform reduced the deductibility of state and local taxes – a big blow to many of their readers.
 
Jerry Zremski of The Buffalo News came away with this headline:“Trump economist blasts state efforts to limit federal taxes.” The Monitor’s Mark Trumbull aimed for a more national audience, asking Hassett about the bipartisan goal of getting more people into the labor force.
 
C-SPAN videotaped the entire breakfast, which can be viewed here.
 
About halfway through, I jumped in with another question: How does it work for Trump to have an economic team with conflicting views on trade? Hassett and Larry Kudlow, Trump’s new economic policy adviser, are both mainstream free trade conservatives, while his trade advisers are more protectionist.
 
Hassett pushed back a bit on my suggestion of disharmony, noting that Trump’s trade actions on China were based in part on work his shop had done, estimating the cost to the US economy of intellectual property theft from China.
 
“The idea that everything that everybody in the trade space wants to do is hated by a subset of the team is not accurate,” Hassett said. But, he hastened to add, “we certainly have other things that we debate.”
 
When Hassett’s appointment was rumored last year, even liberal economists applauded. They may disagree with him on policy, but they see him as a serious thinker. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and has been a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute since 1997. No stranger to Republican politics, he advised the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.
 
But Hassett’s current job is not about politics, it’s about economics. He has a staff of about 50 people, most of whom come from academia. “Probably three-quarters of them, I don’t know their political party,” he says.
 
This was Hassett’s first visit to our breakfast, but he knows the Monitor well and knows that we’re all about old-fashioned civility. Still, he invited us to be “as aggressive as you like.”
 
Of course, it’s possible to have both: tough questions, delivered in a respectful tone. I’d say we succeeded.

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