Lawrence Kudlow to Become Trump’s White House Economic Adviser

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Lawrence Kudlow, a conservative economic commentator whose career included jobs in the White House, Wall Street, radio and business television, will become one of President

Donald Trump’s

top economic advisers as director of the National Economic Council.

Mr. Kudlow, 70 years old, said he was offered the job after a series of recent phone conversations with the president in which the two discussed differences of opinion about trade, among other things.

Mr. Kudlow, who served as an informal Trump campaign adviser, has spoken out against the tariffs on steel and aluminum that Mr. Trump announced last week. A White House dispute over those tariffs played a role in the decision to step down by

Gary Cohn,

the previous NEC director.

Mr. Trump called Mr. Kudlow on Sunday while the commentator, an avid tennis player, was on the court. “I thought he was calling to bawl me out because I was so critical,” he said. Instead, he said the president walked through his reasons for implementing tariffs.

Mr. Kudlow said he spoke by phone again with Mr. Trump on Monday and again on Tuesday night, when he said the president offered him the position.

“I immediately accepted,” he said.

The White House confirmed the appointment Wednesday afternoon. “We will work to have an orderly transition,” said press secretary

Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Despite differences on trade, Mr. Kudlow was a strong supporter of tax cuts and deregulation championed by Mr. Trump. The two also have a kinship in television; Mr. Kudlow is a longtime personality on CNBC and has his own radio program. He developed a relationship with Mr. Trump over the last 20 years by interviewing him on those shows.

Mr. Kudlow’s appointment suggests Mr. Trump will continue to hear conflicting voices in the White House. The president has said he likes fielding competing views. In the tariff debate, Mr. Trump sided with trade skeptics who sought to crack down on cheap imports of steel and aluminum.

“The president wants to hear me, even if we disagree. He told me that several times,” Mr. Kudlow said Wednesday.

Beyond trade, Mr. Kudlow, a former budget aide to President

Ronald Reagan,

has urged the Trump administration to pay more attention to rising budget deficits. He has also voiced unease with suggestions by Mr. Trump that a weak dollar could help the U.S. economy. But he was an early and outspoken supporter of tax cuts and deregulation.

Exactly what role Mr. Kudlow will play in charting new policies isn’t clear. His views are mostly in sync with Mr. Trump on tax policy, where the White House already notched large corporate rate cuts last year.

Treasury Secretary

Steven Mnuchin

will be among Mr. Kudlow’s most influential counterparts in Washington economic circles, along with White House trade adviser Peter Navarro and Commerce Department Secretary

Wilbur Ross.

Mr. Kudlow has relationships with all those men from their time together on the Trump campaign, which didn’t have many policy advisers.

One sign of potential divisions that await Mr. Kudlow: In an interview on CNN last week, Mr. Navarro said Mr. Kudlow had “never, ever supported the president on trade.” He dismissed Mr. Kudlow’s argument that tariffs could cause more job losses in industries that use steel products than they would save in the steel industry itself. Mr. Kudlow, he said, was “dead wrong on the economics.”

The NEC was created by former President

Bill Clinton

in 1993. Past directors, including Robert Rubin in the 1990s,

Lawrence Summers

during the 2009 financial crisis, and Mr. Cohn more recently, used the office as a perch to shape thorny Washington policy debates and broker competing views.

But compared with other agencies such as the Treasury Department or Office of Management and Budget, the NEC has little authority beyond whatever power the president invests in it. That means Mr. Kudlow’s role will be shaped largely by the relationship he forges with the president.

Mr. Cohn was respected on Wall Street, in part because market participants believed he wasn’t afraid to challenge Mr. Trump on issues where the president’s views veered from mainstream views in financial circles.

One question facing Mr. Kudlow is whether a team of respected NEC staffers will follow Mr. Cohn out the door. Former administration officials have said recruiting aides of a similar caliber could prove daunting given the White House’s reputation for stirring conflict among staffers and prizing advisers who confirm rather than challenge Mr. Trump’s views.

Mr. Kudlow, who grew up in a Republican family in northern New Jersey’s upwardly mobile suburbs, became a leader of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1969 from the University of Rochester, where he majored in history. He later studied politics and economics in a graduate program at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.

He didn’t finish his degree but landed a job as an assistant to Paul Volcker, then the president of the New York Federal Reserve, before jumping to Wall Street. At 28, he became chief economist at Paine Webber, a prominent brokerage firm, and later took the same position at Bear Stearns, even though he lacked an economics degree.

After a turn through government—he served as the top economist to Reagan budget director David Stockman—he returned to Bear Stearns. In 1994, he resigned and subsequently acknowledged a drug and alcohol addiction. It isn’t clear whether that episode could complicate efforts to obtain security clearances.

For the last 17 years, he has appeared as a commentator and host on various CNBC and radio programs, and he has toyed with running for the Senate as a Republican.

Mr. Kudlow said the president called him earlier Wednesday, after CNBC flashed his picture and reported he was the president’s likely pick. “You’re on TV. You look very handsome,” he said the president told him.

The two men are set to meet in Washington on Thursday, when Mr. Kudlow said the appointment could be formally announced by Mr. Trump.

Bitter White House disputes over trade often put Mr. Cohn in the position of urging Mr. Trump to buck his intention to demand large tariffs. Referring broadly to the deliberative process around setting economic policy, Mr. Kudlow said, “The process needs some bolstering.”

Mr. Kudlow said he wasn’t fazed by the trade disputes or the unusually high level of staff turnover in the administration, which included the firing of Secretary of State

Rex Tillerson

on Tuesday.

“Let me just put it this way: The more I watch him in this job as president, the higher my regard for him has become,” Mr. Kudlow said of Mr. Trump. “I’m just going to give it my best shot.”

While Mr. Kudlow had been particularly outspoken against the steel and aluminum tariffs, he said Wednesday he was encouraged by Mr. Trump’s decision to grant temporary waivers, including so far to Canada, Mexico and Australia.

“He said to me several times, ‘I believe in global trade. I regard myself as a global trader, but it has to be fair trade to protect America,’” Mr. Kudlow said. “I’m on board with that. I personally hope widespread tariff use—it doesn’t come to that. But in some cases, it will.”

Mr. Kudlow foreshadowed a larger round of tariffs against Chinese imports that is being prepared. He said while he doesn’t support broad-based tariffs, “I am very strongly in favor of tariffs on China, because they continue to violate our intellectual property rights and so forth.”

At one point during their call Tuesday, Mr. Kudlow said the president seemed to revel in the fact that his staff didn’t know they were discussing the job. The president told him, “‘No one else knows that you and I are having this conversation.’ I loved it,” said Mr. Kudlow. “He is who he is.”

Write to Nick Timiraos at nick.timiraos@wsj.com

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