On Tuesday, President Donald Trump declared that tariffs — essentially, taxes on consumers — were the “greatest.” His scheme to soften the pain of tariffs with a $12 billion welfare-for-farmers plan went over like a lead balloon. He was reportedly considering a 25 percent tariff on autos. This is what the Trump-Peter Navarro trade mindset looks like — chaotic, unworkable, counterproductive and politically untenable.
On Wednesday, thankfully, someone figured out how to make a deal, which was no deal at all, with the European Union. Let’s negotiate instead of having a trade war! Brilliant.
The Washington Post reports: “In an appearance in the White House Rose Garden, President Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said they had agreed to hold off on proposed car tariffs, and work to resolve their existing dispute on steel and aluminum tariffs, while pursuing a bilateral trade deal. . . . While Washington and Brussels pursue those aims, the EU will import more U.S. soybeans and liquefied natural gas, or LNG, although Juncker suggested that agreement came with conditions.”
There is less here than meets the eye. (”Trump did not definitively agree to suspend steel and aluminum tariffs against EU countries. Similarly, Juncker did not agree to reduce tariffs on U.S. car imports. And while Trump signaled that he would not impose new tariffs on European goods, such as cars, he did not take that option entirely off the table, preserving leverage in case the talks falter.”) Nevertheless, if aides managed to to induce Trump to retreat from the brink by announcing a non-deal “deal,” then all credit to them.
For now, Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs remain. And tomorrow Trump may wake up and decide once again that tariffs are the “greatest.” If you are looking for some rhyme or reason, don’t bother. As Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., observed in a hearing this week with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the problem is that a president is purposely sowing doubt among allies, lawmakers and the American people. Truth be told, Trump remains confused on even the basics of trade. (He demonstrates his ignorance when he tweets blatant untruths such as “Lost $817 Billion on Trade last year. No weakness!”). Trump hasn’t a clue how to get a deal he’d describe as a win; he seems to carry on largely to please members of his low-information voting base, who think he is fighting for them.
Perhaps after the fiasco that has played out over the past few weeks and the pushback from Republicans, Trump will dump Navarro, get someone as a senior trade adviser who has actually made trade deals and put this sorry episode behind us.
If Trump doesn’t understand trade, he should at least understand polls. His trade war is wreaking havoc in the very states that lifted him to the presidency in 2016. He should take a look at what voters in these states think of him and his party now. The latest NBC News-Marist polls in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota show:
“In Michigan, which Trump won by nearly 11,000 votes, 36 percent of registered voters approve of the president’s job, while 54 percent disapprove,” according to an NBC News report. “In Wisconsin, which he won by about 23,000 votes, another 36 percent give Trump a thumbs up, with 52 percent giving him a thumbs down. And in Minnesota, which Trump narrowly lost by 1.5 percentage points, his rating stands at 38 percent approve, 51 percent disapprove.
“In Michigan, 45 percent of voters prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress, while 36 percent want a GOP-controlled Congress (D+9),” the report continued. “In Minnesota, it’s 48 percent preferring the Democrats, to 36 percent backing the Republicans (D+12). And in Wisconsin, Democrats hold a 47 percent-to-39 percent lead in congressional preference (D+8).”
Less than a third of voters in these states say Trump deserves re-election.
The precipitous decline in the GOP’s fortunes in these states isn’t all attributable to Trump’s trade antics, but the poll numbers should serve as a wake-up call if Republicans think that a generally good economy and hot-button issues (immigration, NFL players kneeling) are going to save them in November. They might try standing up for U.S. interests against Russia, promoting smart economic policies and rebuking Trump when he engages in harebrained schemes such as starting a trade war with our closest allies.