In and around March 2018, there was a feeling at CNBC headquarters in Fort Lee, New Jersey, that if Larry Kudlow — a former CNBC anchor who had segued into being a roving on-air contributor — joined the Trump administration as Donald Trump’s second National Economic Council director, no one was going to come out of the experience unscathed.
Not CNBC. Not Kudlow. Not Trump. Not the American people. One former CNBC journalist tells me that around CNBC people were wondering about Kudlow, “Is he out of his fucking mind?”
In an effort to dissuade Kudlow from taking the Trump job, someone came up with the clever idea of having him talk to Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs president and chief operating officer who was Trump’s first chief economic adviser. Kudlow needed to hear from a Trump insider that going to work for the president would surely leave him bathed in the Trump Stink, as it had so many others, and might potentially make him toxic to future employers, especially if he were planning a return to cable television.
No one knew better than Cohn the depths of Trump’s malignancy. His penchant for showing up at the Oval Office around noon each day. His unparalleled narcissism and utter disinterest in governing. His cynical policies. His need to be reminded on a daily basis why he couldn’t act on the anger he harbored against Jeff Bezos, and his Washington Post, by punishing Amazon in some way. Then, of course, came Trump’s outlandish remarks in the wake of the 2017 Charlottesville riots, which prompted Cohn to break with the president publicly in the pages of the Financial Times. Cohn left the administration in March 2018 after Trump passed him over for jobs running the CIA and the State Department, and after Cohn took himself out of consideration to succeed Janet Yellen as chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Surely Cohn would tell Kudlow not to take the White House job. But Cohn went off-script.
Instead, he encouraged Kudlow. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, Cohn told him. Maybe he could do some good. And that was that. “Listen,” Kudlow told people. “When the president calls you up, you have to serve.” Others figured Kudlow had already made up his mind. He had been itching to return to the White House since he had worked for Ronald Reagan as the associate director for economics in the Office of Management and Budget. “Larry had always wanted to go back to Washington and be in an administration,” says Jake Novak, one of his several CNBC producers. “That was true. I knew that about him from like the second we worked together.” (At the time of his departure from CNBC, Mark Hoffman, the network’s chairman, issued a statement praising Kudlow and wishing him well at the White House. Afterward, when he worked for Trump, Kudlow appeared often on CNBC.)
Says Anthony Scaramucci, who knows and likes Kudlow and who famously lasted just 11 days as Trump’s director of communications, “You start to have your ego talking and your pride talking and you’re starting to form-fit the narrative, going to work in the White House for the American president.” He then starts into a soliloquy of what he imagines Kudlow was thinking as he considered Trump’s offer: “Oh, by the way, the American president is a fucking lunatic sociopath with mental illness. I’m going to choose to overlook that because I want to be able to go work in the White House. . . . My dream was always to return to the White House because it fits my pride-based narrative about myself. Well, Trump is a lunatic. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to go work for him. But when I am working for him and Trump doesn’t agree with anything that you agree with, well, you know what? I’m going to talk myself into doing this because I hope it’ll be good for me and good for the country.”
Serving Trump as NEC director was Kudlow’s last, best chance for another top government position. Kudlow was 71 years old. He had chronic back pain. It was now or never.
He leapt at it.
The end result? “The son of a bitch had a fucking heart attack six weeks into it because of the stress related to it,” Scaramucci says.
Now 73 and recovered from that 2018 health scare, Kudlow is out of the White House. His tenure was largely ineffectual. He put his loyalty to Trump above everything else, just as the president had figured he would. If Trump wanted him to say the pandemic would soon be over, Kudlow complied. If Trump wanted him to say the economic problems caused by the pandemic would soon end, Kudlow did it. Kudlow wasn’t there to ruffle feathers, or to take on Trump. He was there to toe the company line. He was there to faithfully serve the president of the United States.
Kudlow’s only criticism of Trump came after the January 6 assault on Capitol Hill. By then, the election was long over. Trump had lost decisively. It was time for Kudlow to think about his next gig. It was time to act more rationally again, and hope that people would overlook his rabid support of the president. Would he be able to make his way back in front of a camera?
One thing was certain: There was no way Kudlow could return to CNBC. But within weeks he somehow was back on television, with his own daily show on the Fox Business Network, one of a few cable channels where the Trump Stink is considered an asset. “Remember,” says Scaramucci, “he’s a television pundit that played a national economic adviser. He’s not a national economic adviser playing a television pundit.” (Weeks after our interview, Scaramucci became a regular on-air contributor to CNBC, after a long stint as a contributor to Fox.)
But the question circulating among many cable television aficionados these days is whether Kudlow, despite his Trump Stink, is too cerebral and thoughtful to be successful at Fox. Will he be willing to embrace the daily blasphemy that made Lou Dobbs a runaway hit for so long?
Most former chief economic advisers return to Wall Street one way or another. Cohn co-sponsored a SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, before recently joining IBM as a vice chairman. He is also a venture capital investor. Two of Cohn’s former Goldman colleagues — Robert Rubin and Stephen Friedman — also returned to Wall Street after their stints as NEC director. Rubin, for whom Bill Clinton created the position in 1993 (Rubin went on to become Treasury secretary in 1995), is a special adviser to Centerview Partners, a Wall Street M&A boutique. Friedman, who had the position under George W. Bush, is a co-founder of Stone Point Capital, a private equity firm. (Point of interest: Friedman’s son, David Benioff, was one of the showrunners on Game of Thrones.) Larry Summers, like Rubin, served both as Treasury secretary (after Rubin) and as NEC director in the first Obama administration. He’s been an adviser to hedge funds but spends most of his time these days back at Harvard, where he was once the university’s president. (Two other former chief economic advisers, Jeffrey Zients and Gene Sperling, have joined the Biden administration.)
The post–Trump administration Kudlow is Wall Street–adjacent. He is one of the three board members of Ross Acquisition Corp. II, a SPAC started by Wilbur Ross, Trump’s former secretary of commerce. Ross Acquisition raised $300 million in a March IPO and, like the rest of the SPAC universe, is on the prowl for a private company to buy. Kudlow is also an economic adviser to the Bahnsen Group, a wealth management firm with $2.6 billion under management. (Fox is more flexible than CNBC regarding the outside income of its on-air talent.)
But his day job — and his passion — remains cable television.
The consensus seems to be that Kudlow is paid about $1 million a year to anchor the Fox Business show. “They’re going to pay white males who lean right,” one Fox employee tells me. At Fox Business, Kudlow is live every weekday at 4:00 p.m. His taped show appears again three hours later. (Fox declined to make him available for an interview, despite numerous requests. Caley Cronin, a Fox spokesperson, said Kudlow was “very busy.”)
Kudlow loves the idea of using his knowledge of economics to help everyday Americans understand finance and the financial markets. According to Albert Lewittin, who produced Kudlow’s show on CNBC for a few years, “It’s the ability to say, ‘Hey, I helped you understand something. You may not agree with me. You may not agree with my political stand, but at least I helped you understand it, or at least give you a perspective on it.’”
It feeds his ego, too. “He really believes in what he’s doing,” says Novak. “If he’s not going to be in D.C., he’s going to want to be in front of that microphone. He’s going to want to be in front of that camera. You can’t have successful radio or TV without people like that. You can’t have wallflowers in television.”
The first Kudlow show aired on February 16. Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s former Treasury secretary, was one of his guests. It was Mnuchin’s first interview since the end of the Trump administration. “Mnuchin threw him a bone,” says Scaramucci. Following an exchange of pleasantries, the two were off in the weeds talking about the dangers of passing a $1.9 trillion appropriations bill using the so-called “reconciliation” process, which requires only 50 votes in the Senate. Kudlow reminded Mnuchin that he and David Stockman, Kudlow’s boss in Reagan’s OMB, had used reconciliation to pass some laws and that Mnuchin had employed it to pass the massive 2018 tax cut. But now, they argued, it was probably a mistake for Biden to use it. “At some point, the national debt becomes an issue,” Mnuchin said, without irony. Kudlow said Biden was pursuing a hate-Trump progressive agenda. Kudlow’s also had on his show other Trump loyalists such as Stephen Miller and Mark Meadows.
On February 21, Howard Kurtz — the host of Fox News’s Media Buzz program — invited Kudlow on the show to talk about his first few days at Fox Business. Kurtz asked him if his role at Fox Business was to defend his work for Trump while bashing Biden’s economic policies. “It’s not exactly breaking news,” Kudlow told Kurtz. “I’m a free-enterprise, private enterprise supply-sider who believes in lower taxes and [fewer] regulations and energy and fair and reciprocal trade. I believe sincerely — this goes 30 or 40 years back, when I first worked for President Reagan — those are the kinds of things that would generate a great economy and put people back to work, give us long-lived prosperity. If President Biden followed something close to that script, I would be much more affirmative and I would like that. By the way, it doesn’t have to be Democrats versus Republicans. I’m a former Democrat and am a Republican now.”
They publicly discussed for the first time Kudlow’s criticism of Trump’s post-election behavior, leading up to the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill. “I was critical,” Kudlow said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t admire President Trump. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t have the job of a lifetime under President Trump and enjoyed it. We got along very well.” He said he would have “greatly preferred” if after Congress certified the electoral college vote that Trump had pivoted to “talk about his achievements on the economy, on foreign policy, on trade and so forth because they were consequential achievements. He’s actually generated two recoveries: pre-pandemic and now during the pandemic. That’s the way I wish he had gone. He didn’t go that way.”
Kudlow has always been sui generis. He was born into a Jewish family in Englewood, New Jersey. His father worked at a successful textiles company owned by his mother’s family. They owned a second home in Palm Beach. They had nice cars. Kudlow excelled at the private Englewood School for Boys. He played tennis, was an editor of the school newspaper, and acted in plays. He hoped to go to Princeton, but he didn’t make it in as an undergrad. Instead, he studied history at the University of Rochester, where he was a star on the tennis team. Kudlow was also a member of Students for a Democratic Society, a left-wing student protest organization. After graduating in 1969, he worked with Bill Clinton on a political campaign in Connecticut. In 1971 he enrolled in a master’s degree program at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. But he left without completing his studies.
Somehow he got a job at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York as a junior economist — even though he didn’t have an economics degree. Yet there seemed to be no stopping a man with his intellect and gift of gab. Two years later, PaineWebber, a big Wall Street brokerage firm that is now part of UBS, named Kudlow its chief economist. He was 28.
In 1979 he parlayed his position at PaineWebber into a job as chief economist at Bear Stearns, where he transformed himself into an ardent supply-sider — then all the rage among up-and-coming economists who believed that wealth would trickle down to the middle class and the poor if taxes on the rich were cut. This, of course, was the economic philosophy of Ronald Reagan and of David Stockman, Reagan’s new director of the Office of Management and Budget. Stockman showed up at Bear Stearns one day to gauge Kudlow’s reaction to the president’s supply-side proposals and left sold on Larry Kudlow, who soon moved to Washington to work for Stockman. According to Suzanna Andrews in a 1995 New York magazine profile of Kudlow, when he left OMB after two years, people were shocked. “He was very close to reaching the caviar,” an unnamed Republican strategist told her. Kudlow then tried to set up a consulting business in Washington, at the Watergate Hotel. It failed. (Kudlow declined to comment on why he left the Reagan administration or why he closed up his consulting business in Washington.) In 1985 he returned to Bear Stearns, where he worked closely with Alan Schwartz, Bear’s final CEO before the firm’s March 2008 implosion.
Andrews wrote that Kudlow regularly overindulged in cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. And from time to time, he got hooked on one or more of these substances. By 1992, Kudlow had been divorced twice and was in the fifth year of marriage to Judy, his third wife. “Cocaine did not disrupt the Kudlows’ life until 1992, when he began to miss important meetings at Bear Stearns,” Andrews reported in New York. Kudlow went into his first of four rehabilitation programs that year after admitting to Ace Greenberg, Bear’s chairman, that he had a serious problem.
Kudlow left Bear Stearns at the end of 1994 after missing an important meeting that left 200 of the firm’s customers stranded. There were attempts at professional rehabilitation at the National Review and at Montgomery Securities, a San Francisco–based investment banking boutique. Kudlow had regular appearances as a smooth-talking pundit on CNBC, and on cable TV shows such as Firing Line and Crossfire. William Buckley, his boss at the National Review, told Andrews that Kudlow had a “tremendous idiomatic flair for communicating complex economic equations” with “confidence” and “a real feel of reliability.”
There were two more stints in rehab centers. After Judy threatened to divorce him, Kudlow finally admitted the extent of his addictions and entered a six-month treatment program at the Hazelden Center in Minnesota. By all accounts, he came out a changed man. He even converted to Catholicism.
The word is that the rehabilitated Kudlow is one of the nicest guys around and one of the hardest-working. “Larry was a total gentleman,” says one cable executive who knows him well. “People really loved working with him.” Adds Novak, one of his former CNBC producers, “Larry is a recovering addict. When he noticed people struggling with that, which he often did, at both CNBC and some of the other places he worked, he was a very big help to them.”
Kudlow was also an “absolute workaholic,” says Lewittin. He notes that Kudlow worked very hard to “get the story right” and to try “to explain very difficult and very complicated economic principles to a CNBC audience, a Main Street audience, and a Wall Street audience. It’s a very difficult line to cross back and forth to try to explain it.” Lewittin was constantly amazed by how Kudlow would devour Fed reports about the money supply — arcane data that few understand — and then “spit it out” to the CNBC audience in understandable soundbites. “That’s not easy to do,” Lewittin notes. Kudlow was also able to dig through the historical numbers, see the trends, and work with his producers to make charts that viewers could understand. “Let’s figure out how to make it simple,” he’d say to Lewittin. “Let’s keep it simple.” Lewittin adds, “He was excellent at that.” Says a Kudlow competitor admiringly, “He’s intelligent. He’s an economist. You can connect the dots as to why he’d be on a business network. And he can talk any business story.”
Kudlow was peripatetic. He’d play tennis in the morning. Come into the office in Fort Lee around 1:00 p.m. Meet with the team. Then head into New York City for the afternoon, where he would do his writing for the National Review or The Hill, or do his WABC radio show. Then he’d come back to Fort Lee for his CNBC show. “There were times when I would say ‘Okay, Larry, you’ve got to tell me exactly where you are on the highway,’” Lewittin recalls. “And he’d say, ‘I’m on the Henry Hudson’ or ‘I’m on the FDR.’ It’s 20 minutes to air. Is he going to make it? Is he going to make it?” After the show, Kudlow was back to New York City for dinner with his wife and friends.
Lewittin says Kudlow was also willing to work on his craft. “It’s fascinating. You don’t find a lot of on-air talent who can do that,” he explains. “A lot of on-air talent are ‘I know what’s best. I know what’s good. Do it my way.’ He’s not like that. He was always very much like, ‘Give me an idea of how we can do this better.’ Always looking for that kind of feedback. Very shocking. You don’t find that.” When Lewittin’s father got sick, Kudlow was the first to ask about him. When his nightly show on CNBC ended in March 2014 — both the show and Kudlow were losing steam — Kudlow took his small team out to dinner at the Four Seasons on Park Avenue. “It was a lovely, lovely dinner,” says Lewittin.
But for all of his reported kindnesses, Kudlow is adept at provoking the social media trolls — most noticeably, as of late, on Twitter. One evening in March 2021, Kudlow ventured onto Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show. Ingraham asked him about rumors that Biden was thinking about increasing taxes to pay for his $2 trillion infrastructure and climate change proposals. Kudlow responded in part, “The way to get upper-income people to pay more in taxes is to lower their tax rate. Not only will they have investment incentives, they will also have no tax avoidance. . . . They never tell you that, but the evidence is very clear.”
“Kaboom!” tweeted Molly Jong-Fast, an editor-at-large at The Daily Beast. “You know we throw around the phrase ‘Larry Kudlow is wrong about everything,’ but Larry Kudlow is wrong about everything.”
Yet Novak, for one, continues to believe that Kudlow is right. “It’s just amazing how people are very strident in their ignorance,” he says. “That’s exactly how you get [the rich] to pay more. When you have fewer reasons to find loopholes to avoid taxes, you’ll just pay the friggin’ flat rates. I can understand people debating that and saying, ‘Well, some of the rich people will still find the loopholes,’ or whatever. That’s fine. But the whole ‘That’s saying two plus two equals five, Larry’s an idiot, let’s laugh,’ that kind of strident mocking of somebody who really understands it and you don’t, is always one of those things that bothers me about the internet. But the internet is the petri dish for that kind of nonsense.”
To the outside world it looks like Fox Business cleverly swapped Lou Dobbs — one expensive white man with MAGA credentials — for Larry Kudlow, a less expensive white man with MAGA credentials. “Dobbs overreached; Kudlow was cheap,” explains Scaramucci. “It’s an arbitrage.”
It takes time for any cable television show to gain an audience, of course.
Presumably, the TV overlords want to see an increasing slope of viewership over time. Perhaps thanks to Mnuchin, and others, Kudlow came out of the box strong: The February 19 ratings had Kudlow’s 4:00 show at 235,000 viewers, about a third of what Dobbs used to command. “Not terrible,” says one longtime cable executive. (The consistent winner on Fox Business in the post-Dobbs era is Stuart Varney, who is on from 9:00 a.m. to noon weekdays and gets about 250,000 viewers for his show.)
By the third week of March, though, Kudlow’s numbers were down to about 150,000 viewers while Varney’s show was hitting nearly 300,000. When Kudlow reairs at 7:00 p.m., it attracts about 75,000 viewers. By the end of March, according to Fox, the show had settled into a daily viewership of about 190,000 people. Fox has declared victory. Not only has Kudlow delivered more viewers — and more prosperous viewers — to Fox Business in the 4:00 p.m. time slot, Fox claims that he has also swiped 7 percent of CNBC viewers during that time period. Fox has said that since it began airing on Fox Business, Kudlow’s show has become the tenth-most-watched show on business television. (Disclosure: I have been a paid CNBC contributor since 2018.)
A bigger concern than ratings is whether Kudlow will ultimately be able to fit into the Fox ethos of culture wars and bashing everything Biden, from rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement to the “Iran Deal Disaster,” as a chyron at the bottom of Kudlow’s show read one day recently. Is Kudlow just “another horn in the trumpet section?,” wonders one longtime former cable television executive.
Another cable executive worries that Kudlow is not “really hyperbolic” enough for Fox. When Kudlow worked for Trump, he continues, “he had a couple missteps, like denying the scope of Covid. But for the most part, he’s not willing to flat-out lie enough to appeal to that audience. You’ve got to have that playbook, that anti-immigration, lower-taxes, smaller-government playbook, in order for it to work.” The executive notes that there’s a “certain agility” that’s needed to get ratings on Fox, such as aggressiveness and anger, adding, “Larry is an elegant man. He is an elegant man. . . . Larry’s not a blame-game guy. That’s what resonates there. He’s just not a guy who is pointing a finger and blaming someone.”
On the other hand, Kudlow follows both Neil Cavuto and Liz Claman, two longtime Fox Business anchors who have never been part of the Trump Squad at Fox and Fox Business, so maybe there is hope that Kudlow can, like them, carve out an independent path. (Cronin, the Fox spokesperson, declined to comment on any aspect of Kudlow’s time at Fox Business Network.)
The second cable executive emails me back after tuning in to a few more of Kudlow’s shows. He knows and likes Kudlow and wants him to be happy and successful. Yes, it’s early in Kudlow’s tenure, but the man he always respected seems these days like he is caught between what remains of his integrity and the exigencies of the Fox News business model. “It pains me to see that he is all in on being a science denier,” the executive writes. “First Covid-for-Trump and now Climate-Change-for-Fox. Such a good man, but looks like he is more interested in trying to attract Q-Anon eyeballs than credibility or integrity. Sad.”