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Trump Drops the Fig Leaf on Trade

Contra his advisers, the president does not see tariffs as a means to an end, but as an end.
May 10, 2019
Trump Drops the Fig Leaf on Trade
Donald Trump and Larry Kudlow, imagining that trade wars are good and easy to win. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

There has always been a massive contradiction at the heart of the Trump administration’s trade policy. For two years, the president has pursued an aggressive protectionist agenda: jettisoning one international trade deal after another, cannonballing the nation into costly trade wars with China and the EU. All the while, his advisers and enthusiasts have insisted that the president has deployed these protectionist tactics to achieve free trade outcomes, pressuring China to end its unfair trade practices, compelling Europeans to drop tariffs of their own. White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow is fond of saying that Trump’s “goal down the road is zero tariffs” with China: “Tariffs are a negotiating tool. They are part of his quiver.” In this vein, Republican columnist Marc Theissen has claimed that Trump “is not a protectionist,” but “is using tariffs as a tool to advance a radical free-trade agenda.”

Pro-trade officials like Kudlow say these things partly out of political necessity—U.S. trade laws permit a president to impose tariffs unilaterally only under certain conditions—and partly as an attempt to nudge the president around to their own way of thinking, a time-honored tactic in this administration. But they are lies: Whatever else he is, Trump is a protectionist through and through. He has been one for decades, and he has never bothered to pretend otherwise.

But it’s one thing not to bother throwing your advisers a bone. It’s another thing altogether to do what Trump did on Twitter Friday morning: to expose, very plainly and simply, the exact way in which your advisers have been bullshitting to protect you.

There’s a lot to be said about all the insane ideas the president oh-so-casually dropped here. The glib and, ahem, socialist promises about how the executive is going unilaterally to take over huge swaths of economic central planning, the maddeningly daft assumptions behind the notion that $100 billion in new tariffs is $100 billion in the bank—hey, are we sure this is Trump tweeting, not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

But leave that all aside for now. The real problem is Trump’s argument about the relative benefits of trade wars versus trade deals: The remarkable assertion that “Tariffs will bring in FAR MORE wealth to our Country than even a phenomenal deal of the traditional kind. Also, much easier & quicker to do.”

It would be hard to think of a sentence Trump could have tweeted that more completely unravels the revisionism of Kudlow and company. The president’s position on tariffs is utterly transparent: The reason to impose tariffs on other countries is because tariffs are great for the economy, full stop, and the reason we didn’t have widespread tariffs before Trump is because our previous leaders were an unbroken succession of silly fools.

It of course overstates the case to treat these Trump tweets as revelations. What’s remarkable here is how freely he gives away the game at the exact moment that the administration is diving deeper into the trade war. If and when the White House follows through on Trump’s $100 billion threats, his staffers will prepare an official announcement justifying the step in Kudlowian terms: That the tariffs are needed to punish China for intellectual property theft, or forced technology transfer, or a raft of other unfair trade practices. Is it true that these can be problems for the U.S.? Of course. But are they actually the reason Trump keeps escalating his trade war? Transparently not. He has told us so himself.

You can picture, if you squint, a world in which congressional Republicans don’t stand for this sort of nonsense. You don’t even have to squint very hard: Trade is one of the few issues where lawmakers dealing with Trump have retained a little spine—enough at least to gripe publicly about his behavior, and threaten to push back legislatively at some hazy future date.

If they don’t do so now, it’s hard to imagine a time when they ever would. It’s up to them: Can a president be permitted to let his zonked-out economic imagination run wild forever, without even the courtesy of pretending he’s doing so for lawful reasons? Or have they at last given in altogether to the wretched notion that politics is simply the raw exercise of power, at precisely the moment the legal constraints curtailing that power have become most important?

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.