THE MORNING PLUM:
President Trump continues to benefit from a ubiquitous journalistic trope, in which news organizations — still flagellating themselves for missing what was really going on in Trump’s America in 2016 — send reporters into hardscrabble Rust Belt and Appalachian towns to find working people who are standing by their president, no matter what the elites keep saying about him.
But now this journalistic genre may be about to turn on Trump. In a possible sign of more to come, NPR reports this morning on steelworkers in a Pennsylvania town who fear that Trump’s trade war may cost them their jobs.
Today Trump will attend the annual summit meeting of the Group of Seven in Quebec, but the White House has already announced that he will leave early on the second day, obviously due to tensions over Trump’s imminent trade war. Trump lashed out on Twitter at our European and Canadian allies for allegedly fleecing us on trade, in the process exaggerating the size of our trade deficit with the European Union. Trump sarcastically added: “Look forward to seeing them tomorrow.”
Over in the Pennsylvania steel town visited by NPR, workers aren’t so sure that this will end well for them. A 58-year-old steel-mill worker named Dan Moore loves pretty much everything about Trump, except his tariffs:
“We need tariffs, but when it starts to impact the company where you work … you’re thinking, well wait a minute, timeout!” he said.
Moore is worried the tariffs might cost him his job. The mill where he works, NLMK Pennsylvania, employs 750 workers and is a subsidiary of Novolipetsk Steel, or NLMK, Russia’s top steelmaker.
But even though NLMK is creating American jobs, the company is being hit with a 25 percent tariff on steel because it imports raw steel slabs from Russia before turning them into coils in Pennsylvania and then selling that steel to customers that manufacture cars or pipes, for example.
Trump doesn’t appear worried about such looming job losses. He tweeted early this morning: “Looking forward to straightening out unfair Trade Deals with the G-7 countries. If it doesn’t happen, we come out even better!”
It’s hard to say what that last sentence means, but it looks like a reiteration of Trump’s basic worldview, in which trade is a zero-sum game — we can simply “win” a trade war by withdrawing from global engagement until other countries submit to our will and renegotiate whatever fairer terms Trump envisions. But nobody, not even Republicans, can say whether Trump has any idea what he’s doing. Trump had previously wielded the threat of tariffs as a way to exercise leverage in trade negotiations on various fronts, including the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But nothing has happened, so Trump is moving forward with the tariffs anyway.
The problem with the tariffs, as economists point out, is that even if they do boost the steel and aluminum industries, they could cost many more jobs in industries that buy those materials. An ensuing trade war could be very disruptive, given our businesses’ reliance on global supply chains and expectations of policy stability. But as Paul Krugman has put it, Trump prefers to remain “belligerently ignorant” of these matters.
Those journalistic excursions into Trump Country keep telling us that people like Moore thrill to Trump’s belligerence and impatience with such complexities. But his job is vulnerable precisely because of them: It relies on imports, but now that importation will be more expensive.
In fairness, some critics say the factory where Moore works could easily remain open even with the tariffs, and that the company is gaming current trade rules in a shady way. But Moore doesn’t appear to think that, and others in his community agree that the tariffs will be an “abomination” for them. Moore told NPR that he previously supported tariffs, but as NPR noted, this was “in the abstract.” Now that the complexities of the issue are clearer, Moore understands that tariffs “may help some people, but they’re gonna hurt a lot of people, too.” And he hopes to convey his dissatisfaction to the president:
“I have plans to write a letter to President Trump or maybe a personal phone call,” Moore said. He believes that if he can get the president’s ear, he might be able to convince him to give NLMK an exemption for the 3 million tons of semi-finished steel slabs it wants to import from Russia.
Beyond this one situation, economists say a trade war could cause hundreds of thousands of job losses at businesses that similarly rely on global supply chains, and those would hit deep in the Rust Belt and the South. But here’s the thing: As Trump’s tweets indicate, Trump is likely to view the escalating trade hostilities as something that he must personally prevail in. Whenever pointy-headed elitists chortle that a trade war won’t be easy to win, as Trump claims, it makes it more likely he’ll plunge headlong into one, regardless of the damage done along the way.
As Michelle Goldberg writes, the basic story of the Trump administration so far has been that Trump’s incompetence and cruelty have been felt most keenly in places like Puerto Rico (not to mention in mainland immigrant communities), but it’s only a matter of time until those traits start damaging the lives of many others as well. More tales along these lines may soon begin emerging from Trump Country.
(This post has been edited slightly for accuracy.)
* TRUMP’S ABSURD CLAIM ABOUT IRAN DEAL: Trump is now claiming that walking away from the Iran deal curbed the regime’s aggressive behavior and that it is now run by new leaders, showing he was right. Mark Landler comments:
Iran remains firmly under the control of its theocratic government, it continues to support proxy forces across the Middle East, and it just announced plans to increase its capacity to enrich uranium after Mr. Trump’s withdrawal. … Analysts said they were puzzled by Mr. Trump’s claim … If anything, Iran has seized on the fact that the deal’s other signatories have stuck with it as a way to divide the United States from its allies.
Trump’s constant need to frame everything as a victory for himself no matter what the facts on the ground dictate bodes really well for his North Korea talks, doesn’t it?
* BRUTAL STICKING POINTS ON ‘DREAMERS’: House Republicans are searching for a compromise between conservatives and moderates to protect the “dreamers,” to head off a “discharge petition” measure that would pass with lots of Democrats. But The Post reports:
Several Republicans … said the goal was a bill that would adhere to Trump’s … framework, which called for … a wall on the Mexican border and cutbacks to two legal immigration pathways. … Sticking points include determining how many dreamers ought to be entitled to a path to citizenship, how far to scale back the existing rules allowing U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to sponsor family members for immigration, and how to structure any border wall funding.
Again, a deal based on Trump’s framework, with cuts to legal immigration, can’t pass the Senate. It received the fewest Senate votes of any immigration proposal earlier this year.
* NEW EFFORT TO GUT AFFORDABLE CARE ACT: The Trump administration now backs a quixotic conservative lawsuit targeting ACA’s protections for preexisting conditions on the grounds that Republicans gutted the mandate (which is essential to the former). Jonathan Cohn notes:
[Trump’s] decision to jump into this health care case, on the side of the plaintiffs out to gut protections for people with pre-existing conditions, could put the issue back in the public eye. That could work well for Democrats, who have made clear they believe health care is a winning political issue for them again.
The last effort to repeal Obamacare unleashed a tremendous backlash. The Trump administration is reminding everyone that Republicans wanted to gut this popular provision.
* A FRIVOLOUS, DESTRUCTIVE LAWSUIT: Nicholas Bagley explains that Congress already chose to sever the mandate from the preexisting conditions piece, by passing a law that nixed the former but not the latter. Bagley blasts the administration for backing the lawsuit:
We don’t have to speculate what Congress would’ve done if it had a choice between invalidating the ACA’s insurance reforms or just invalidating the mandate. Congress made that choice. … Without question, then, there’s an argument to be made in the ACA’s defense. And the Justice Department has a durable, longstanding, bipartisan commitment to defending the law when non-frivolous arguments can be made in its defense. This … puts that commitment to the torch.
One imagines that more reporting will establish how the Justice Department came to back this lawsuit in the days ahead.
* REPUBLICANS WONDER ABOUT TRUMP’S TRADE ENDGAME: CNN reports that Republicans are widely criticizing Trump’s imminent trade war, but a few still hope he knows what he’s doing:
Despite their worries, Republicans are hoping that these moves by the President are part of a bigger plan to strike a grand bargain in Canada. Some, like Sen. [Lindsey] Graham, a South Carolina Republican, just want to know what those plans are. “I think all of us want to know what a better deal looks like, what’s the end game with the White House, what’s your plan, how do we get there?” Graham said.
One would think Graham could pick up the phone and put this question to people in the administration. Perhaps there isn’t any answer.
* BUT REPUBLICANS WAVE WHITE FLAG ON TRADE: Politico reports that Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is pushing a bill to assert Congress’ authority to block Trump’s trade war, but GOP leaders are killing it:
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has publicly warned about economic blowback from the tariffs but he’s also been increasingly public with his criticism of the Corker proposal, telling Fox News … that “we’re not going to be, in the Senate, passing a bill preventing the president from what he can legally do under current law.”
In fairness, some Democratic senators from states carried by Trump also oppose the Corker move, but the mass abdication among Republicans — on free trade — remains striking.
* TRUMP SETS TONE FOR RULE BY THE WORST: Paul Krugman links the corruption of Trump and many of his top officials directly to the cruelty of his administration’s policies:
Petty corruption and cruel, destructive policy are indeed linked. Men who see high office largely as a license to live large, act like big shots and force government employees to act as their personal servants aren’t likely to care much about serving the public interest. … a government consisting almost entirely of bad people — which is what we now have — is, in fact, going to govern badly.
In so many ways, Trump and his administration act from the premise that their positions confer zero institutional obligations to the American public.