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Exasperated over the market plunge, Trump asks advisers whether he can fire Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell

President Trump has privately discussed firing Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, a move that could roil already volatile financial markets. (Video: Reuters)

President Trump has asked internal and external advisers about whether he can fire Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell, two people familiar with the exchanges said, in a sign of his mounting frustration with the central bank chief.

News of Trump’s discussions about Powell prompted rebukes from lawmakers and alarm among economists and Wall Street executives Saturday. In the evening, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin tweeted a statement from the president: “I totally disagree with Fed policy . . . but I never suggested firing Chairman Jay Powell, nor do I believe I have the right to do so.”

The two people familiar with Trump’s questions about his authority to remove Powell spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the private conversations. One of them characterized Trump’s inquiry as a reflection of his rage over the stock market’s recent plunge and his desire to blame someone.

Many experts said the president most likely does not have the authority to remove Powell, whom Trump nominated to lead the central bank a year ago, largely on Mnuchin’s recommendation.

Trump has shattered many norms since becoming president, but one that has caught investors and economists off-guard is his willingness to publicly rail against central bank policy.

Beginning in the Clinton administration, White House officials ha ve largely avoided public criticism of the Fed, worried that any political pressure on the central bank could tarnish its reputation and cause investors and foreign finance ministers to question its actions.

Trump cast this tradition aside. He has ranted publicly for weeks about the way Powell is leading the Fed, charting a course of slow but steady interest rate increases as a way to contain inflation.

The fact that Trump has spoken with advisers about whether he can fire Powell was first reported by Bloomberg News on Friday evening.

The stock market is on track for its worst year in a decade, with many sectors down more than 20 percent — technically a bear market. The sell-off continued in the past week — the worst for the stock market since 2008 — after Powell signaled that the Fed did not have plans to sharply change course.

Trump’s questions about his authority to dismiss Powell underscore how much he fears that the stock market slide, and looming worries about economic growth, could threaten his reelection chances and weaken him politically.

The Fed declined to comment.

Wall Street executives have urged Trump to step back from his attacks, and they say any move to dismiss the Fed chair would cause a massive sell-off in the markets and rattle the global financial system. The independence of the Fed, and the freedom it has to make decisions regardless of politics, have long been critical factors supporting the U.S. economy, economists said.

“If Trump tries to fire Powell, there would be a catastrophic reaction in the markets,” said Greg Valliere, chief global strategist at Horizon Investments. “That is so reckless that [National Economic Council Director Larry] Kudlow and probably Mnuchin would resign, just as [Defense Secretary Jim] Mattis did.”

The Federal Reserve Act says that a Fed governor can be removed “for cause,” which courts have interpreted as criminal activity or malfeasance, as in other cases regarding independent agency leaders.

Powell is both one of the Fed’s governors and its chair. The law is silent on whether someone at the Fed can be stripped of the chair position.

“The law isn’t clear,” Fed historian Peter Conti-Brown, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in a series of tweets. “Trump can probably de-designate a Fed governor as board chair, but not fire the governor.”

If the president even attempted to remove Powell as chair, it would probably end up in court, and “we have no idea what the court would do,” said Conti-Brown, which is why he predicts “chaos.”

If Trump succeeded at removing Powell from the chair position, it’s uncertain what would follow. The Senate would have to confirm a replacement, and many lawmakers have stated that they believe in the independence of the Fed and support Powell. Meanwhile, it’s not clear that any of the other Fed governors would take the Fed in a different direction.

Regardless, Fed decisions are the result of a vote by a board of 12 members, including Powell and six other Fed governors serving in Washington and five regional Fed presidents. There are only five governors currently appointed, which means decisions are split between those serving in Washington and the regional Fed presidents, who are not appointed by Trump.

Trump’s main complaint is that Powell is raising interest rates too quickly, which the president worries will hurt the economy and his 2020 reelection chances. The president told The Washington Post last month that he’s “not even a little bit happy with my selection of Jay [Powell].”

Trump’s criticisms of Powell aren’t without irony. Republicans for years criticized the Fed for keeping rates too low for too long, warning of catastrophic inflation that never materialized. They have quieted since Trump became president. Trump himself has vacillated, at times criticizing the Fed’s low interest rate policy and at other times embracing it.

For the most part, it is left-leaning economists who think the Fed should stop raising rates, though they say that decision should be left to the Fed alone.

The Fed raised its benchmark interest rate, which affects borrowing rates across the country and the world, to a range of 2.25 to 2.50 percent last week. That is still low by historical standards, a reflection of the long recovery from the depths of the financial crisis and Great Recession that hit a decade ago. But many economists agree that rising rates are playing a role in the stock market’s sharp decline. Also widely cited are Trump’s confrontational trade policies.

“It’s legally questionable whether the president can fire Powell. It’s politically inadvisable. And most importantly, it would be financially reckless,” added Richard Fisher, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. “I believe you would have a dramatic market sell-off.”

Strongman leaders in Argentina and Turkey in the past have removed their central bank chairs and downturns followed, Fisher noted. Former U.S. presidents, including Ronald Reagan, reportedly tried to get the Fed to keep interest rates low, but none is known to have attempted to fire a sitting Fed chair.

Some say that if Trump were to tweet that he planned to fire Powell, the damage to the Fed’s credibility and global markets would likely occur, even if Powell ultimately kept his job after a court challenge.

“Even thinking about the president firing Powell is frightening,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former economic adviser to George W. Bush and John McCain. “In a single fell swoop, it would destroy the independence of the Fed.”

Other officials concur.

“What the president fails to understand is that monetary policy should be separate from politics,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), a member of the Banking Committee. “Any action taken to dismantle the independence of the Fed would not only be inappropriate, it would threaten the institutions that protect our rule of law.”

Kudlow said at a Washington Post Live event in November that it would be an “impossible task” to remove Powell.

“Jay Powell’s a friend of mine. I don’t even want to go down this road,” Kudlow said when asked whe ther the president wants to replace the Fed chair. “A Fed chair can only be removed for cause.”

Robert Costa contributed to this report.