WASHINGTON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Economic nationalists still linger in the White House. The departure of Steve Bannon, the chief strategist who advocated protectionist, “America first” policies, represents a plus for the global economy. But other foes of open trade and immigration will continue to try to influence Donald Trump. The centrists’ economic fight waged by National Economic Council director Gary Cohn and others will get easier but it’s not over.
Bannon’s exit removes a major source of dysfunction. Earlier this week, he told American Prospect that “we’re at economic war with China” and talked of fighting with more moderate voices on trade, like Cohn and the Treasury Department run by Steven Mnuchin. All three are Goldman Sachs alums but Bannon derides them as “globalists.” He was also a key proponent of the travel ban on citizens of certain Muslim-majority countries, which Trump imposed after taking office.
Bannon leaves behind several mini-mes, including senior policy advisor Stephen Miller, who has become a Trump favorite. Earlier this month, Miller announced White House backing for a Senate plan to slash legal immigration in half, despite a Pew Research study that shows without overseas employees, the U.S. working-age population would drop by almost 8 million by 2035.
Miller is marginally more polished and politically savvy than Bannon, having spent years in Congress, most recently as communications director for then-Senator Jeff Sessions, who is now attorney general. He wrote Trump’s inaugural speech in which he depicted a dark vision of American carnage and has been known to clash with Cohn and his allies.
On trade, Miller is backed by former University of California economics professor Peter Navarro, who is head of Trump’s trade council. Along with Bannon, he has advocated starting a trade war with China by imposing tariffs on steel and other goods. The steel levy has been delayed but the administration went ahead with a U.S. trade representative review that could lead to Chinese tariffs for alleged intellectual property violations.
Miller and Navarro also reinforce beliefs long-espoused by Trump, which makes the job of moderates like Cohn harder. Bannon’s departure removes a major obstacle to pursuing a more conventional economic agenda. But threats to a free-trading America remain in the White House, including the man occupying the Oval Office.