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Trump’s top economic adviser was against tariffs for years. Then he joined the Trump White House.

Trump’s top economic adviser was against tariffs for years. Then he joined the Trump White House. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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When Larry Kudlow signed off for the final time from CNBC's “The Kudlow Report” on March 28, 2014, he left viewers with the same mantra he had repeated for years.

“Free market capitalism is the best path to prosperity,” Kudlow said.

Now, four years later, Kudlow is helping sell President Trump’s “unprecedented” tariffs, going so far on Wednesday as to call Trump “the strongest trade reformer of the past 20 years.”

Just three months prior, Kudlow was calling tariffs tax hikes, prosperity killers and the cause of the Great Depression. And 13 days before becoming director of the White House’s National Economic Council, Kudlow said Trump “has never been good on trade.”

You can watch lots of examples of Kudlow's about-face in the video above.

In selling Trump’s trade plan, Kudlow often caveats his remarks by saying he is a “free trader” who is not a “fan of tariffs,” before proceeding to make the case for tariffs.

“Tariffs are part of any negotiation,” Kudlow said in May.

“He’s become a trade reformer,” Kudlow said about Trump on Wednesday. “His argument, it holds a lot of water.”

Since joining the Trump administration, Kudlow has defended tariffs on China, saying “no free trade guy disagrees” with Chinese tariffs. Except Kudlow himself disparaged a 2011 congressional effort to allow the U.S. Treasury to impose retaliatory tariffs on China.

“If you impose Chinese import tariffs, your consumers … are going to suffer from higher prices and lower living standards,” Kudlow said in October 2011.

He has also defended tariffs on U.S. allies in Europe and North America, saying in June that the United States is not “satisfied” with Canada’s handling of steel shipments. In March, Kudlow said Trump’s steel tariffs would “damage” the U.S. economy.

Kudlow’s trade metamorphosis is so drastic that he is now even defending Trump’s claim that trade deficits are bad for the United States. (Most economists disagree.)

“The president expresses himself as the president expresses himself,” Kudlow said in April after joining the Trump administration.

One month before that, Kudlow said, “The trade gap is not a reflection of a bad economy. In fact, just the reverse.”

A White House analysis of Trump’s trade measures concluded that they would hurt the economy, even as administration officials continue to say otherwise.

Kudlow’s former colleagues also seem baffled by his transformation. In April, CNBC’s Jim Cramer asked how Kudlow’s views were meshing with Trump’s “nationalist” views, and CNN’s Erin Burnett asked whether Kudlow had “confidence” that Trump would “do the right thing” on tariffs.

And two months ago, Fox Business Network’s Stuart Varney, citing Kudlow’s penchant for free trade, asked whether he was “comfortable” in the Trump White House.

“I am,” Kudlow replied.