THE MORNING PLUM:
The battle that has erupted over President Trump’s plan for tariffs on imported steel and aluminum raises a question: Is Trump operating in any meaningful sense out of any vision of what is good for America?
Republicans, most Democrats and many economists are widely rebelling against Trump’s tariff plan, arguing that it could unleash disruptions that harm far more workers than it is intended to help, or worse, start a trade war that could have untold destructive consequences. But as Paul Krugman suggests, the process by which Trump arrived at this decision is in some ways more troubling than the decision itself: The stated legal justification is deeply dubious, and the substantive case for it that Trump himself has offered is based on absurdities.
Trump’s tariff decision was so last-minute that the White House did not alert senior aides across multiple agencies. The State Department was not prepared to send cables to embassies in an effort to explain the decision. And senior leaders on Capitol Hill were caught totally flat footed.
Politico also reports that aides close to Trump believe that no amount of persuasion is likely to get him to reverse himself, because he is “resistant to publicly flip-flopping on high profile issues, believing it makes him look weak.” This comes after NBC News reported that Trump’s decision came after an insufficient internal review process, and that it was “born out of anger at other simmering issues” and reflected the fact that he was “gunning for a fight” after getting “unglued” over a spate of unflattering headlines buffeting the White House.
But let’s put this in its larger context. It has been widely and repeatedly documented that Trump’s decisions are not rooted in any sense of the national interest on multiple other fronts, many of which are deeply consequential. Here’s a partial rundown:
- Trump’s failure to organize a strong response to the threat of Russian sabotage of future elections is reportedly rooted in a refusal to acknowledge that Russian interference happened at all in 2016, because that would diminish the greatness of his victory. This puts him at odds with U.S. intelligence officials who have warned sabotage is happening again, and even with some in his administration who regard the fact of Russian interference “as objective reality.”
- The laughably slapdash rollout of the thinly veiled Muslim ban strongly suggested that little serious thought or interagency input went into the design of a policy that would impact untold numbers of people and send a strong message to the world about American values. What’s more, Trump pressed ahead with the ban, despite the fact that two internal Department of Homeland Security analyses badly undercut the rationale that it was needed for national security.
- Trump continues to push for a costly and expensive wall on the southern border on the grounds that it will stop drugs from pouring into the country, but experts say this is just nonsense. Trump, obviously, may disagree, but has the White House offered any serious analysis showing the contrary or making an affirmative case for its benefits to the United States?
- When Trump was debating whether to cut the number of refugees admitted to the United States, the White House deep-sixed on deeply spurious grounds internal administration data that showed refugees are a net fiscal positive to the country.
- Trump’s pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio came after Trump “was sold on the pardon as a way of pleasing his political base,” as the New York Times reported. Trump had previously asked his attorney general whether the case against Arpaio could be dropped well in advance of his conviction, showing he never intended to seriously factor the legal details into his decision, which, when taken with the fact that Arpaio had been convicted for ignoring a judge’s order, compounds the lawlessness of this action.
- Trump’s refusal to unambiguously condemn white supremacy in Charlottesville was a remarkable abdication of his responsibility to speak to the nation as a unifying voice. Trump reportedly felt “vindicated” after digging in on this position, because he absurdly sensed that his base would agree with him, making this another reminder that he simply does not believe that his service as president confers on him any obligations to the broader public of any kind, even at a fraught, critical moment of national introspection.
- Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, combined with his refusal to divest and his nonstop self-dealing and profiting off the presidency, constitutes an absolutely clear-cut case of Trump prioritizing the financial interests of himself and his family over the public interest. Indeed, it is the abandonment of any sense of responsibility to be transparent before the public that makes it possible for him to shield the true extent of his profiteering.
Now, in some of these, one can sense a vague vision on Trump’s part of what is good for the United States. The travel ban, the border wall and, now, the tariffs can charitably be described as rooted in a nationalist view that U.S. workers need to be insulated from competition from low-skilled immigration and cheap labor abroad.
But in many of these cases — such as his pardon of Arpaio; his lack of transparency and nonstop self-dealing; his refusal to safeguard our democracy against foreign interference — Trump is objectively putting other imperatives before the national interest. And as Brian Beutler points out, the sheer totality of all of those rebound back on the arguments over substantive policy: As long as Trump’s motives remain deeply suspect on so many other fronts, it is just not possible to say whether Trump’s differences with other lawmakers and experts over policy are based on any legitimate disagreement over what is “in the public interest.”
Indeed, even in the cases where Trump does seem to be acting out of some sense of what is in the public interest, if Trump does not allow for any contrary information to intrude on his deliberations; and if the White House suppresses any such contrary information when his own administration produces it; and if the White House makes no serious good-faith effort to present an affirmative case for some of Trump’s biggest agenda items; and if independent reporting shows that other factors are what really weighed on his decision-making — such as his emotional state or his desire to please his base or his fear of appearing “weak” — at what point do we get to say that, broadly speaking, Trump is actually not operating out of any vision of what is good for the country?
* FORMER TRUMP AIDE WILL COOPERATE WITH MUELLER: After blitzing multiple news media with bombastic threats not to submit to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s subpoena, former Trump aide Sam Nunberg reconsiders:
In an interview with The Associated Press, Sam Nunberg said he was angry over Mueller’s request to have him appear in front of a grand jury and turn over thousands of emails … But he predicted that, in the end, he’d find a way to comply. “I’m going to end up cooperating with them,” he said.
And let’s not forget that along the way, Nunberg said of Trump: “I think he may have done something during the election,” though he professed uncertainty as to what that might be.
* TRUMP KNOWS HE’S RIGHT ABOUT TARIFFS: GOP leaders have told Trump that his tariffs will start a trade war, and their pushback helped the stock market rebound. But the New York Times reports that he saw this as vindication for his position:
One of his all-important barometers — the stock market — rebounded on Monday after falling sharply immediately after the announcement of the tariffs last week as the Republican dissent fueled optimism that Mr. Trump would ultimately reverse course. … But a person close to the White House said that the president was itching to impose tariffs, and that Monday’s stock market rebound had reassured Mr. Trump that he was in the right.
It’s unclear how exactly the market’s initial plunge upon the announcement fits into Trump’s reading, but surely that also vindicates him somehow.
* BUT TRUMP IS OPEN TO A FACE-SAVING WAY OUT: The Times story also reports:
Mr. Trump has heard all sides’ arguments, but his view has remained steadfast, one White House official said. Still, the official said, the president is mindful enough of the arguments against potentially tanking the stock market that he has been somewhat open to a move to narrow the scope and effects of the tariffs while avoiding the perception that he was relenting.
Imagine if Trump made this decision on the merits of the arguments for and against them.
* EARLY PRIMARIES SHOW DEMS ARE ENERGIZED: Today is Election Day in a host of House primaries in Texas, and Politico notes that early voting shows that Democrats are “voting at higher rates in nonpresidential elections than in recent history”:
In Texas’ 15 largest counties, more Democrats have voted early (465,000) than Republicans (420,000) through last Friday, the final day of early voting. Compare that with the last midterm election, in 2014, when only 227,000 Democrats voted early, compared with 365,000 Republicans.
One question is whether today’s Election Day voting will also demonstrate this trend, which bodes well for Dems’ prospects of taking back the House.
* TRUMP EXAGGERATES ENDLESSLY ABOUT TRADE: The Post’s Glenn Kessler has a comprehensive look at many of Trump’s claims about trade, from his insistence that we “lost” hundreds of millions of dollars because of the trade deficit to the claim that NAFTA has been a “disaster” to the complaint that our allies have “taken advantage” of us.
As Kessler concludes, “Many of his claims are highly exaggerated.” You’ll also note that they all seem to push the same narrative: that America is losing and everyone is laughing at us.
* TRUMP’S FRAUDULENT RATIONALES ON TRADE: Paul Krugman notes that Trump’s rationales for the tariffs (national security; “winning” a trade war) are basically fraudulent, and adds:
The really disturbing thing is the way he seems to have arrived at that decision … and this matters: It gives other countries full legal license to retaliate, and retaliate they will. … a full-scale trade war would disrupt international supply chains, displacing huge numbers of workers: The U.S. government’s own estimates say that exports to the European Union, Canada and Mexico support 2.6 million, 1.6 million and 1.2 million American jobs respectively.
The basic problem here is that all the talk of a trade war could make Trump more eager to do this, because that offers him another way he thinks he can “win.”
* AND TRUMP IS ‘IGNORING ADVISERS INSIDE THE BUILDING’: That Politico story referenced above also reports that White House aides are cooking up a plot to talk Trump out of starting a trade war:
There was a growing sense among some administration officials that the best way to talk Trump out of the tariffs was to make sure he hears from people outside of the White House, since he’s ignoring advisers inside the building. West Wing aides … are planning a White House meeting for Thursday with executives from industries likely to be hurt by big tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, two officials familiar with the matter said.
Yes, but do those industries involve the production of a hard, tough, manly building material like steel?