President Trump opened the door Tuesday to possibly firing Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell, an almost unprecedented attack on America’s central bank just as top Fed leaders are meeting in Washington to decide what to do on interest rates.
“Let’s see what he does,” Trump said when a reporter asked him whether Powell should be removed as chair.
The Fed will make an announcement at 2 p.m. Wednesday about whether it is keeping interest rates the same or reducing them. Trump has repeatedly urged the Fed to cut interest rates to juice growth.
The White House counsel looked into whether Trump could remove Powell as Fed chair in February, according to a Bloomberg News report Tuesday. Trump started asking advisers whether he could fire Powell in December after markets dipped on fears of the escalating trade war with China and the Fed’s plans for more rate hikes in 2019.
Trump’s top economic advisers have told him it’s not legally possible to get rid of Powell and National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow insisted Tuesday that there was no White House push to remove the Fed chair. But the president’s ire about Powell has not subsided.
“I want to be given a level playing field, and so far I haven’t been,” Trump said before boarding a plane to Florida to launch his reelection campaign.
Wall Street investors expect the central bank will not slash rates this week but will signal a strong likelihood of a cut in July or September. Powell has said he would not step down if Trump asked him and that he plans to serve out his full term through February 2022.
On the presidential campaign trail, Trump complained that interest rates were too low and were giving the Obama economy an unfair boost, but since he has taken office he now complains that rates are too high and holding back the economy’s potential.
U.S. interest rates are just shy of 2.5 percent, a low level historically but the highest level in more than a decade.
Trump chose Powell, a Republican lawyer who spent many years at a private equity firm, for the top position at the Fed in late 2017. Powell was confirmed by the Senate and started his term as chair in February 2018.
Fed governors can only be removed “for cause,” which courts have generally interpreted as criminal wrongdoing, but some have wondered if there is a loophole where Powell could be demoted from the chair position back to one of the seven governor roles, allowing Trump to select someone else as chair.
It would be especially helpful for the Fed to lower rates now to provide stimulus as Trump goes head-to-head with China on trade, a move that many economists and business leaders say is hurting the economy.
Powell has cultivated close ties on Capitol Hill and has the backing of many Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
“We should make sure that the independence of the Fed is above politics as much as you can and doesn’t accommodate one group or another, or one person or another, or one president or another, but does what’s best for the economy,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), a senior member of the Senate Banking Committee.
Many business leaders have also publicly backed Powell and an independent Fed. JPMorgan chief executive Jamie Dimon told reporters last week that the Fed under Powell’s leadership is “very professional, very capable and pretty much doing the right stuff.”
“The independence of the Fed needs to be sacrosanct. The president should leave that alone,” said Michael Farr, president of Farr, Miller & Washington, a wealth management firm.
Farr noted that President Richard M. Nixon pressured the Fed chair at the time to keep rates low to boost Nixon’s reelection chances, but it turned out to be painful for the economy when it spurred years of high inflation.
Trump complained in tweets Tuesday morning that the European Central Bank is stimulating Europe’s economy but that the Fed isn’t doing that.
The European central bankers “have a much different stance than our folks do,” Trump lamented. “[ECB President] Mario Draghi just announced more stimulus could come, which immediately dropped the euro against the Dollar, making it unfairly easier for them to compete against the USA.”
Powell has said he wants to keep the economy thriving as long as possible and will do whatever it takes to do that, but he also believes the United States is doing well enough right now that it doesn’t need near-zero interest rates anymore as it did in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
The Fed is supposed to act in the best long-term interest of the U.S. economy and not cave to short-term political pressure.
Erica Werner contributed to this report.