Donald Trump Is Talking About Firing the Fed Chair. Can He?

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 19:  Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell speaks during a news conference on December 19, 2018 in Washington, DC. The US Federal Reserve raised the short-term interest rates by a quarter percentage point on Wednesday, the fourth increase of the year, and signaled two more hikes could come in 2019.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Watch out, Jerome. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Well, here we are. After months of complaining bitterly in public about the Federal Reserve’s streak of recent rate hikes, Donald Trump reportedly wants to know if he can fire Chairman Jerome Powell. According to Bloomberg, the president has talked privately about canning the central bank chief “many times in the past few days,” following the Fed’s decision this week to increase rates for the fourth time in a year. CNN, meanwhile, confirms that Trump has “begun polling advisers about whether he has the legal authority” to send Powell packing.

Trump is furious at the Fed because he believes its rate hikes have put the economy at risk for a downturn and hurt the financial markets (stocks, you may have heard, have had a rough year). But the president’s team has apparently warned him that firing Powell could backfire by setting off a panic among investors, who would worry about the central bank losing its political independence. “Advisers close to Trump aren’t convinced he would move against Powell and are hoping that the president’s latest bout of anger will dissipate over the holidays,” Bloomberg reports.

But maybe it won’t. According to CNN, Trump’s team told him earlier this year that it was “doubtful” the courts would back him if he fired the Fed Chair, but “so far, the White House hasn’t come to a final legal determination.” So on the one hand, the president may just be blowing off steam. On the other hand, this doesn’t appear to be the first time that the idea of firing Powell has crossed Trump’s mind, and his lawyers haven’t strictly told him its a no-go.

No president has ever tried to outright fire a Fed chair before, and the law on whether they can is, in fact, a bit unclear. The Federal Reserve Act states that members of the central bank’s board of governors can only be removed “for cause”—a term that doesn’t have a precise formal definition, but is generally understood to encompass basic performance issues like failing to show up for work or drinking on the job, not public policy differences with the president. Since the central bank’s chair is also a governor, Trump probably can’t kick Powell off the board entirely.

The Fed statute says absolutely nothing, however, about what’s required to remove someone from the position of chair. It’s simply “silent” on the issue, as Peter Conti-Brown, a legal historian and expert on the Fed’s independence at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, has written. So it’s conceivable that Trump could demote Powell, stripping him of his duties as Fed chair, while leaving him on the board in a diminished capacity.

What that would mean for the central bank, the markets, or the broader economy is really anybody’s guess. Trump would likely try to appoint a new Fed chief, but his pick might not be able to change the central bank’s direction on monetary policy, since the chair’s powers are largely informal. Members of the interest rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee have traditionally taken their cues from the chair because of the prestige of the office, but that might change if they felt Trump was trying to curtail the central bank’s independence. Trump might not just be picking a fight with Powell. He could be picking a fight with the country’s entire central banking system. Maybe, instead of edging the country closer to an economic and legal crisis, he’d have been better off trying to find a Fed chair whose views he actually agreed with in the first place.