President Trump is not quiet about his distaste for financial regulation. He regularly claims new rules imposed on Wall Street by the Dodd-Frank reform bill of 2010 squeezed credit and harmed the economy. The data to actually back up this argument is scant to nonexistent. But Trump isn't one to be slowed down by a mere lack of evidence.
What could slow down Trump's pro-Wall Street push, though, is political reality. Two recent developments illustrate the point.
First, Politico reports that Trump will likely name Randy Quarles, a former treasury undersecretary in the George W. Bush administration and a managing partner at a private-equity firm, to be the Federal Reserve's vice chairman of supervision. Quarrels certainly has a Republican-friendly pedigree. But compared to Trump, Quarles sounds downright disinterested in deregulating finance.
Second, few targets loom larger for the GOP than Richard Cordray, the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Republicans have grown increasingly furious as the agency goes after payday lenders, racial bias in student loans, prepaid card companies, and more. Trump was reportedly interviewing possible replacements for Cordray as early as January. But now word is leaking the president may not sack Cordray after all, deeming it more trouble than its worth.
Let's take each of these points in turn.
The Fed's vice chairman of supervision, a member of the Fed's Board of Governors, was actually a position created by Dodd-Frank. While most people associate the central bank with setting interest rates, it also has regulatory powers over the banking industry — powers that were greatly enhanced by the 2010 financial reform bill. President Obama never got around to nominating someone to fill the office, but Daniel Tarullo served as a pinch hitter in the role. There, he developed a reputation as a hard-charging regulatory enforcer, slapping the big banks with stiffer capital requirements, tough stress tests, and more. Then in February he announced he would soon resign.
Quarles certainly sounds more circumspect: He says some parts of Dodd-Frank "aren't well designed" and were included for political reasons. His worst comment was probably way back in 2006, when he advised Congress to hold off on regulating hedge funds — a call that doesn't look so good post-2008.
Yet Quarles also argues lawmakers were "not ambitious enough" in some ways when writing Dodd-Frank. There's a strain of GOP thought that says some Dodd-Frank rules should be wound down while capital requirements are increased to compensate. Maybe that's what Quarles means. And while there would be a number of serious problems with that idea, his comments are also so wishy-washy that even that interpretation is probably a worst-case scenario. Politico interpreted his nomination as evidence Trump wants to take "a pragmatic approach to paring back bank regulation." One bank executive told the outlet that Quarles "wasn't one of the people who wrote [Dodd-Frank], and he wasn't one of the people who fought it." In other words, he wouldn't be akin to Jeff Sessions at justice or Tom Price at HHS.
So why does Trump suddenly look conciliatory on this topic? Who knows. But between the failure of the ObamaCare repeal bill and the increasing struggles of tax reform, the White House is suffering some high-profile embarrassments. The president genuinely seems inept enough that he doesn't realize how unpopular the GOP agenda is or how hard it is to corral the various parts of the government to agree to something as simple as an agency nominee. Maybe reality is kicking in?
Things are even less mysterious when it comes to Richard Cordray at CFPB.
As it turns out, the term of Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) is ending in mid-2018, right around the same time Cordray's term as the head of the CFPB ends. And Cordray is a Democratic favorite to run for the office Kasich will vacate — the most important position in one of the country's most politically consequential states. Given the degree to which Trump's presidency has already galvanized Democratic voters, sacking Cordray before his term is up would likely turn him into an instant sensation and liberal hero, vastly increasing his chances of success. Anonymous attendees at a White House meeting told Bloomberg that Trump explicitly made this exact point to them.
Cordray hasn't announced his intentions yet. But it seems the best the White House can hope for is that Cordray voluntarily steps down from the CFPB early to pursue those larger ambitions.
American voters may often be a frustrating and confusing mass. But they do have some pretty clear sentiments: They're fed up with the country's economic stagnation, and they can't stand Wall Street. And plenty of them are pretty heavily invested in Obama's past efforts, insufficient as they may have been, to combat those problems. Those realities matter just as much as the checks and balances of our constitutional system or the design of our legislature.
And challenging those realities comes with consequences that no amount of Trumpian bluster can wave away.