NEW YORK — Two of Donald Trump's senior policy advisers argue that powerful interests have aligned to rig a long-standing institution of American presidential elections against their candidate — a conspiracy that has nothing to do with campaigning or casting votes, and everything to do with economics.
Economist Peter Navarro of the University of California at Irvine and billionaire investor Wilbur Ross say Washington think tanks — the time-honored forecasters of how candidates' economic plans might change the country — have conspired to underrate the job-creation potential of the Republican nominee's proposals and overstate how much they would add to the federal debt.
The duo say those think tanks are acting to boost Democrat Hillary Clinton and to advance the interests of large corporations that fund their research, and that news reporters are playing along. The think tanks reject the claims, saying the Trump campaign is simply practicing bad economics.
Ross and Navarro laid out their allegations to a reporter last week in Ross's private office on Sixth Avenue, a 25th-floor perch overlooking the changing leaves of Central Park, which serves as a second headquarters of sorts for two of the most important advisers in Trump's disparate policy network.
They said the forces working against Trump include corporations channeling money to supposedly independent researchers to promote their business interests, journalists who lack "the ethics or responsibility" to report the truth on complicated policy matters and an organization that Navarro calls "the Darth Vader of globalism."
“It’s hogwash," Ross said at one point, describing one study that predicted potentially massive job losses in the United States if Trump follows through on his threat to impose tariffs on imports from nations such as China and Mexico.
“It’s deeply disappointing that there is such a high degree of analytical and political malfeasance," Navarro said about a study that predicted Trump's tax plan would balloon the national debt by $6 trillion over a decade.
The researchers in question said there is no plot against the Trump team, just errors of analysis by Navarro and Ross.
"There’s no conspiracy,” said Marcus Noland, executive vice president and director of studies at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the think tank Navarro dubbed Vader-esque. “There is a complete misunderstanding of international trade, on their part."
Trump's economic team operates more diffusely than many past presidential campaigns, so much so that Ross and Navarro did not meet in person until the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. They have huddled regularly since then, sometimes in Trump Tower, sometimes in the corner office of WL Ross & Co, the private equity firm Ross founded in 2000 and sold to Invesco in 2006.
In September, they co-wrote a road map to Trump's theory of economic improvement, including estimates suggesting that his plans to cut taxes and federal spending, increase energy production, reduce government regulation and rework America's relationships with its international trading partners would spur economic growth. By the Trump team's own calculations, the plan would swell the budget deficit without a growth boost from trade.
It is a theory that defies party or ideological orthodoxy, combining deep tax cuts for corporations (a conservative favorite) with populist trade policies including tariff threats (which conservatives typically hate).
The first outside group to assess the plan in full was a team of researchers at Moody's Analytics, led by Mark Zandi, an economist who has donated to Democrat Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. In a June report, the Moody's team projected Trump's full suite of policies could lead the United States to fall into recession and create 10 million fewer jobs over the next decade than it otherwise would have, largely because of the United States disengaging considerably from global trade.
That analysis infuriated Navarro, who accused Zandi of "pursuing a political agenda on behalf of the Democratic Party." Today, he calls Zandi the "bad seed" of the think-tank critiques of Trump's plans, and the reporters who write about them.
Ross speaks softly and reflectively, and often cites his business experience to make points. Navarro, who won Irvine's distinguished faculty teaching award last year, sometimes reels off short lectures on trade, deficits and the models researchers use to predict how policy changes might affect the economy.
He uncorked a scathing lecture this month at the Tax Policy Center in Washington during an event where campaign representatives were invited to discuss their tax plans.
The center's researchers had found that the Trump plan would reduce federal revenues by more than $6 trillion over a decade.
Navarro complained that the center's director, Len Burman, had promised the campaign that the analysis would include a "dynamic score," meaning a projection of how the Trump plan would affect economic growth. He said the center was bent on helping Democrats with its analyses, and he questioned why it had not also analyzed the trade, energy and regulatory planks of the Trump agenda.
Later, a moderator invited Burman to respond. "Usually," he said, "people are not quite so forthright in telling us what they — actually, nobody’s ever said anything as mean as that.”
The center did publish a dynamic analysis of the Trump tax plan a few days later, in conjunction with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. It found a slight boost to growth early on from Trump's tax cuts, but that growth would actually fall over the course of 20 years, as federal debt piled up. The 20-year window is unusually long for a tax analysis. Navarro and Ross suggest that was on purpose — to hurt Trump. “I would bet a lot of money that TPC told [the Penn researchers] to make it look worse,” Navarro said.
Burman said the center "does everything it can to ensure that its analysis of presidential candidates’ tax plans is accurate and impartial." Its researchers, he said, sent the Trump campaign several questions about the details of its plan, but did not hear back until the first analysis was finished. He also said Trump's team has often cited the center when its analyses were critical of the Clinton plan.
The conflict is similar with Peterson, which modeled a scenario in which Trump's policies lead to a trade war with China and other countries, killing millions of American jobs. Navarro said the model is flawed, including its assumptions that unemployment will remain low for years and that the difference between America's imports and exports — known as the trade deficit — will not change, as Trump predicts it would. He says those choices have led Peterson to consistently overrate the benefits of trade deals in the past and underrate their damage to American workers.
Those are standard modeling decisions, and as Peterson officials said, they are fully disclosed by researchers, who believe the Trump team is flatly wrong when it assumes it can juice growth by targeting the trade deficit.
Economic forecasters always make assumptions to simplify their analysis. It is hard to predict how something as complicated as a national economy will respond to even a single policy change. At one level, the Trump campaign is drawing on a long-running debate about forecasts: which assumptions should forecasters make?
Navarro and Ross are convinced the problem is deeper — that think tanks choose assumptions that purposely devalue Trump's plans, and that have led them to overestimate the benefits from previous international trade deals. “In order for them to survive, so they have to be funded," Navarro said. "So there’s this seepage of special-interest bias that begins to come into this whole stew.”
As evidence, the men pointed to articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times on how think tanks are vulnerable to influence by corporate donors. Those articles do not deal with think tanks' assessments of campaign proposals.
Incurious journalists, they said, compound the problem. “You can’t get airtime for the policy question," Ross said. "Nobody wants to hear about policy questions. People want to hear about behavior, sexual misconduct.”
The interview was scheduled for an hour. When the time was up, Navarro rose and reminded Ross he had an appointment he needed to keep.
“I don’t mind being a little bit late,” Ross said. “I think it’s important that this controversy gets elevated, the controversy about what models people use, the controversy about, is ideology dictating research, does research lead to ideology? I think those are important questions. They’re especially important questions beyond the campaign. Because, if we’re going in a wrong direction inadvertently, and a lot of that blame belongs to the think tanks, that’s a bad thing for the country."
"Now," he continued, "it’s possible that if everybody did all the right research, they’d come to the same conclusion, and that would be fine. At least it would be fact-based.”