That got Mr. Trump's attention. The president-elect turned to the other people in the room — his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon; his chief of staff, Reince Priebus; and Steven T. Mnuchin, his campaign's chief fund-raiser and Mr. Trump's nominee to be Treasury secretary -- surprised that his infrastructure ideas had such a potential downside."Is this true?" Mr. Trump asked the group, according to those people. Heads nodded. "Why did I have to wait to have this guy tell me?" he demanded.
The White House Council of Economic Advisers has, traditionally, been a pretty big deal. As Slate noted the other day, since its creation in 1946, the CEO has "acted as a sort of in-house think tank for presidential administrations, ready to answer any and all questions related to the dismal science. Typically led by a renowned academic economist ... it provides input on policy, produces the annual Economic Report of the President, briefs POTUS on developments like the monthly jobs report, and more. At times, it has been deeply influential."It's been so influential that the CEA's chair has traditionally held a cabinet-level role in the White House, helping directly guide the president's thinking on economic matters. Donald Trump's team will have a very different model: the Wall Street Journal reported last week that the new president has demoted the Council of Economic Advisers.OK, so who will have Trump's ear on economic policy? The New York Times reported over the weekend that former Goldman Sachs CEO Gary Cohn appears to have the dominant voice in Trump World. The report noted a recent, pre-inauguration meeting in which Cohn urged Trump to find private-sector partners as part of the administration's infrastructure plans to help keep government costs down.
Perhaps because everyone on Team Trump assumed he was already aware of such an obvious detail?Nevertheless, the Times' report added that Cohn has become "the go-to figure on matters related to jobs, business and growth" in Trump World, with Cohn being "summoned to the Oval Office for impromptu meetings with the president up to five times a day."A Wall Street Journal report added that Trump's economic team has a "personnel vacuum" which Cohn is filling, becoming the White House's "economic-policy powerhouse."There is some irony to all of this. For all of his phony populism, Trump has turned to the former CEO of a Wall Street giant -- a firm he repeatedly mocked and used as a cudgel during the campaign -- to effectively tell him what to think about the economy.For the working families Trump pretends to champion, that's not good news. When the Trump administration recently moved forward on a policy to make it easier for investors' financial advisors to rip them off, the White House sent out Cohn to defend the policy he'd recommended. It didn't go especially well: Cohn denounced the fiduciary rule by saying, "This is like putting only healthy food on the menu, because unhealthy food tastes good but you still shouldn't eat it because you might die younger."Can't you just feel the populism?