Ben White, native Washingtonian, cut his journalistic teeth in D.C., working for Washington Post icon David Broder before continuing his career at the Financial Times, the New York Times, and now POLITICO, where he writes the influential Morning Money column. Relying on Ben each morning as our first read on what is happening in politics and what matters, we caught up with him after an insightful public interview with CNBC senior contributor Larry Kudlow.
You grew up in Chevy Chase and live in the New York area. Do you miss Washington?
I miss D.C. a lot. It was an incredible place to grow up -- both to be steeped in politics in Washington but also to be connected to the town. My dad was a real estate development lawyer who could tell you about any building at any time. He worked in the [D.C.] city planning office and spent a lot of time on the formation of the government before going into private practice. I learned a lot about D.C. from him and grew to love it as a city both for the politics, which I loved, but also as a home town.
The city has changed a lot.
Going to church at Luther Place on Thomas Circle, it was pretty rough then. Going through the parking lot we walked over crack vials, and all that sort of stuff. And it's obviously been transformed into a very nice and gentrified area, like so many of the neighborhoods that were not as "happening" then. It's awesome to see.
Barron Trump may go to school here. He's 10 years old. You went to St. Alban's and Edmund Burke, another private school. Any thoughts?
Barron seems like someone who might end up at St. Alban's. It's a school for a lot of the elite politicians’ kids in Washington. I would see him more as a St. Alban's guy than let's say a Sidwell person.
Georgetown has been a little "out of the spotlight," in recent years, some say. But if Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner move here, that could change.
If they're there, they'll do a lot of entertaining, I would think. If you're in the inner circle, you'll want to be there. A lot of the leading media people will want to be there. So maybe the days of the Georgetown salon will come back.
Do you think Trump needs sort of a "softening" figure around him?
100%, yes. He absolutely does. There are a lot of people who are scared of Trump. He's not coming into office with a sky-high approval rating by any means. Ivanka and Jared are well known in New York for moving in social circles with a lot of people, and a lot of people know the Trumps' softer side and know the family side of Trump through Ivanka and Jared. They have a lot of social connections. And people like her. She's very popular.
The Obamas were part of a blossoming of restaurant culture in Washington. Do you think the Trump administration is going to be better for steak houses?
I would imagine this administration will be very good for steak houses. And cigar sales. There will be a throwback feel to it. He's a guy who likes to eat steak.
Have you been to the Trump Hotel?
It's beautiful. I was kind of taken aback by how pretty it is. I've gotten a lot of pushback on Facebook for saying that.
It's not like he's not made nice hotels before. He's obviously very proud of that one. There will be people who stay there because Trump likes it when people stay there. The currying favor aspect...diplomats and others…that gives some people pause. I don't think he really cares. He's made it pretty clear that he doesn't.
Culturally, are we going back to the 80s?
Trump's hayday was the 80s. That's when he became "Donald Trump." So I think from a style perspective, there will be some of that, and from a policy perspective, he wants to do what Reagan did, which was slash tax rates, create faster economic growth and get people out there spending more money. And that's what happened in the 80s. Of course, we had a hangover -- a recession, a financial crisis. There are costs to be paid when you govern in that way and create big debts and deficits. But those come later and you do tend to get boom years in the intervening time.
When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?
Probably as soon as I was in elementary school. I loved writing, I always loved talking about politics and reading the Washington Post. I worked for David Broder at the The Post and then the Financial Times, The New York Times, and then Politico.
Politics are in your blood.
Yes. I wound up deciding between being a minister and being a journalist. I even did a little divinity school before going full-time into journalism. We have a priest in the family -- my brother is a Catholic priest.
Who are your heroes?
Broder is definitely one. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has always been a personal hero of mine.
Remind us who that is.
He was a German theologian who was part of the resistance in Nazi Germany. I've always been influenced by his example. The other ones would be obvious: Jackie Robinson. I'm a big sports guy. Martin Luther King, Jr., leaders of the Civil Rights era.
Speaking of that, what's your advice for Donald Trump regarding the Tweeting and attacking people? What's the danger there?
I think the danger is that he often punches down at people who will have a hard time fighting back and will come in for a lot of abuse if he criticizes them on Twitter. I don't think he should do that. I also think he should ease up on the constant attacking of the press. I understand that he feels that he wasn't covered fairly during the campaign and that all the stories about him were negative. But his modus operandi now is to turn on the TV and if he sees anybody criticize him, to immediately lash out at them as biased and unfair. He does it to the New York Times, he does it to NBC, etc.
Should they just develop a thicker skin?
I’m worried that he is poisoning people's minds against good, factual journalism. We can't operate as a country if we don't operate from a common set of facts that are accepted as truth. We can't traffic in conspiracy theories all the time. The relentless attacking on a free and fair press is dangerous.
Thomas Jefferson said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."
You can't have a democracy without a free press. And what Trump is doing right now is trying to intimidate the press into not being critical of him. This gets into the whole question about cable TV news and the extent to which it is sort of dependent on "all Trump all the time" coverage. That's definitely good for revenue, but to do that you need access to Trump people and you need them on your air. And they can definitely threaten to deny that presence and that access if they don't like the coverage. That's a bad situation to be in.
Thank you, Ben. We hope to see you (and your mom!) in Washington again soon...
Drill, baby, drill! fans, Trump administration whisperer Larry Kudlow says you’ll be in luck under the new administration, which he may join -- taking, in his words, a “second bite at the apple” after an earlier stint in the Reagan White House.
Mentioned as potential Chair of Trump's White House Council of Economic Advisors, Kudlow was interviewed before a standing-room only crowd Tuesday at the W Hotel by respected journalist Ben White, who writes the must-read “Morning Money” column for POLITICO.
The Huffington Post said the appointment “could work, provided the scenario involves periodically releasing Kudlow from a box, getting his advice, stuffing him back inside, and then doing exactly the opposite of his suggestions.” Ouch.
Here’s what the genial Kudlow had to say to Ben White at the POLITICO luncheon in Washington this week:
While Trump’s selection of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State might be raising eyebrows on both sides of the aisle, “I think it’s an inspired appointment,” Kudlow said. “Nobody would have expected it. It’s a good thing to know a lot of world leaders, and he’s a negotiator. He’s not going to give the store away.”
Kudlow went on to cite a story by Jerry Seib in the Wall Street Journal. “Trump wants to destroy ISIS, but he’s unlikely in other places to bring down the dictator. Instead, he’ll want to make a decent deal.”
“The Art of the Deal” is going to be a theme in this reality show – I mean, government!
Until now, there were more generals appointed to top posts than Goldman Sachs alums, but Kudlow pointed out that the Goldman crowd has caught up with the choices of Steve Mnuchin for Treasury, and Goldman COO Gary Cohn as head of the National Economic Council.
Get ready for “four or five percent growth” for a few years, Kudlow said.
And having generals in broad, normally civilian cabinet roles is a good thing. “My saintly wife [painter Judith Pond Kudlow], an Air Force brat, daughter of a full-bird colonel before he retired, said this: ‘Generals hate war. But if the mission is war, generals will win it.’ We haven’t had that for the last eight years.”
More victories: Kudlow said corporate tax reform is coming, maybe before the wrecking ball hits Obamacare.
“My first choice was to eliminate the corporate tax altogether, but 15 percent ain’t bad,” he said, praising House Speaker Paul Ryan and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, now a forward-field command base for tax cutters.
On encouraging global companies to bring their dollars home at a reduced rate, “Just keep the [tax rate] as low as possible. I don’t care how it is used. I don’t want any strictures on it whatsoever.”
“In Kudlow world, if you provide the right incentives, U.S. companies will stay,” he added.
“You’ve always been a free trader,” White offered.
Kudlow: “You noticed.”
Trump, or at least his rhetoric, is not, White pointed out. “Is he going to rip up the NAFTA agreement and slap tariffs on China?”
Kudlow: “It’s fraught with peril how I answer this. I’ll give you my opinion of what I think he’ll do. Negotiate, renegotiate – The Art of the Deal. Carrots and sticks. I don’t believe he’s a major protectionist – that’s my view. But NAFTA has grown old and could use some improvements.”
On China: The country “lies, cheats and steals. But I don’t think they’re a currency manipulator. Counterfeiting, cyberhacking, we’ve got to talk about that,” Kudlow said. “But I don’t think [Trump’s] a knee-jerk tariff guy. He just wants trade to be pro-American. Here’s where a guy like Tillerson is going to come in handy.”
Repeatedly saying he’s a “friend” and not a spokesman for the nascent administration (translation: he may be joining the administration soon), Kudlow’s forecast is that “the president-elect will do a bilateral trade agreement with Britain.”
“I’m a big believer in the English-speaking trading world,” Kudlow said. “I think there’s a commonality. I call it Magna Carta 2.0.”
White noticed that Kudlow was on a long call about policy in the green room before the interview started. “[Trump] has my cell phone number,” Kudlow said.
Will Kudlow serve in a Trump administration? “I think it’s going to be an historic administration,” he said. Kudlow was associate director for economics and planning in the Reagan Office of Management and Budget (OMB), a part of the Executive Office of the President. While he worked at the OMB, Kudlow was also an advisory committee member of Freddie Mac.
“Usually you get one bite at that apple, but if the Lord gives me two…,” yes, he would serve, he said, adding that Trump is a very good listener, “But someone who will speak his mind.”
Yet, Kudlow predicts that Trump will have much better relations with Congress, with both parties, than anyone expects.
“To be a really good Republican you have to first be a Democrat. Ronald Reagan was a Democrat first, I was a Democrat. Trump was a Democrat for many years,” he said. In fact, Kudlow was a member of left-wing Students for Democratic Action, and a college tennis standout at the University of Rochester as an undergraduate.
In his new book JFK and the Reagan Revolution, the CNBC senior contributor argues that President John F. Kennedy, not Ronald Reagan, was “the first tax-cutting supply-sider.” The book, he said, makes a great Christmas gift. Kennedy would have been a Republican today, Kudlow added.
Calling Mnuchin an “excellent pick” who should be praised for doing “the best he could” buying banks that foreclosed on distressed loans during the financial crisis, Kudlow said he likes Trump’s recent statements criticizing Boeing’s price tag to build the next generation of Air Force Ones.
“Trump is going to end the war against business,” Kudlow said. “Having said that, there are behemoths -- they’re good companies -- but there’s a lot of concern about crony capitalism. You know what? I agree with him. Cost overruns have been going on since John the Baptizer,” Kudlow said, drawing laughs.
The Boeing proposal is “a hell of a lot of money for an airplane. [Trump] has an airplane. He knows something about it.”
Kudlow predicted that, despite charges that Trump spreads misinformation and engages in personal attacks on Twitter, the president-elect will continue to use it as a bully pulpit. “You can agree or disagree with him. But he’s going to keep using those pipes. I think it’s kind of interesting. And I think presidential tweets are here to stay."
Regarding the possibility of Russian hacking of the presidential election? “It needs to be investigated,” Kudlow said, most seriously.
Meanwhile, “It’s Morning in America, Again” is just 140 characters...or less…
If there’s a Trump bump for restaurants, Georgetown is first in line, said The Washington Post.
Ivanka and Eric Trump, both of whom attended Georgetown University, enjoyed the clubs and bars like most undergraduates do.
There are more good reasons for the younger Trumps, especially Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, to choose Georgetown not just to party in, but to live.
Top-notch schools like the Montessori School of Georgetown, the British International School, Georgetown Day, and the Washington International School are steps away.
There’s Kesher Israel, which on its website calls itself, “a modern Orthodox synagogue…14 blocks from the White House”! If the Trumps lived nearby, they could walk, which the orthodox Jewish faith they follow requires on the Sabbath. They could walk to Dad’s house on Saturday, if necessary.
Politico’s Ben White, a native Washingtonian who writes the must-read daily “Morning Money” column, wonders whether the young Trumps could give Georgetown a boost.
“I would imagine so, if they’re there, there will be a lot of entertaining,” he told The Georgetown Dish. “If you’re in the inner circle, you’ll want to be there, I’m sure the leading media people will want to be there. So maybe the days of the Georgetown salon will come back.”
Consummate Georgetown hostess Sally Quinn offered some dinner party advice recently in Washington Life. First, she said, invite Democrats and Republicans alike. Second, even though it’s Washington, make it fun.
“…There’s a fine line between having substance and having a meeting. You don’t want to have a meeting. You want people to have fun, but they also want to discuss things that they care about. I sort of go high/low. We can talk about Aleppo and then switch to Brad and Angelina’s divorce. That’s very important to having a great dinner party,” Quinn said.
The young Trumps could give Georgetown a boost, and their presence could help Dad, observers say.
Donald Trump could use some image softening, especially in political Washington. “Ivanka would be the natural person to do that,” White said.
And maybe more. “Remember when every problem in Washington could be solved over a glass of brandy? When partisan politics were set aside by reasonable people for the common good?” wrote Roxanne Roberts in the Washington Post, reviewing “The City of Conversation,” an Arena Stage play about a Georgetown hostess, earlier this year.
“It never happened quite that way,” she wrote.
But could it be Morning in Georgetown?