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Why nothing seems to be stopping Trump’s trade war

The Senate passed a nonbinding measure on July 11, calling for Congress to have a role in tariffs imposed on the basis of national security. (Video: U.S. Senate)

President Trump is remaking the global trade order without significant political resistance or penalty, unchecked by a largely compliant Congress and bolstered by the loyalty of his supporters — even those likely to be hurt by his burgeoning global trade war.

The Senate on Wednesday passed a nonbinding measure calling for a greater role in overseeing Trump’s trade decisions, an implicit criticism of new tariffs the president has levied on some of the country’s closest allies and largest trading partners. But the vote has no power to prompt a course change from the White House. And it follows failed attempts to advance measures that could have given Congress new power to restrain Trump.

Congress’s passivity in the face of Trump’s escalating trade conflict is one of several factors that have made it easier for the president to push on. Others have included markets that haven’t melted down, business leaders who have done little beyond using rhetoric to criticize the trade spat, and Republican voters who have stood by their president. In each of these cases, critics of his trade policy had hoped Trump would find reason to be dissuaded.

The trade changes mirror Trump’s rapid and similarly unchecked efforts to reposition the United States in the global political order. During his trip to Europe this week, the president has antagonized the country’s NATO allies. He also plans to meet next week with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, seeking to tighten ties with a traditional rival.

On trade, U.S. partners have retaliated with their own tariffs on U.S. goods, targeting GOP strongholds and paining sensitive industries and areas that depend on access to foreign markets. New polling suggests, however, that Trump supporters in those areas are standing by the president.

The parts of the country most affected by Trump’s trade war remain supportive of the president for now. Among the 15 states most affected by the tariffs, Trump’s approval rating is 57 percent, according to a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll. Trump won 52 percent of the vote in those states in 2016.

Much of the pain has centered on soybean farmers, whose crops are exported widely and who have seen prices nosedive since the trade war intensified.

“I am in Brussels, but always thinking about our farmers,” Trump wrote Wednesday on Twitter. “I am fighting for a level playing field for our farmers, and will win!”

Trump’s unimpeded trade efforts could face more resistance, however, if disputes with allies intensify and more of their economic consequences hit home.

Though Trump has been making trade threats since the start of his presidential campaign, the opening rounds of tariffs are only now taking effect. If the U.S. economy were to slow meaningfully because of the conflict, Trump could yet be forced to change course.

But despite the escalating trade spats, markets have not cratered. While U.S. stocks slid Wednesday, with the Dow Jones industrial average falling 219 points, markets have kept relatively calm in recent weeks even as the United States and China swapped punitive trade measures.

Washington investment manager Michael Farr said that after months of presidential outbursts, Trump fatigue is setting in among investors.

“Wall Street seems to be beginning to get him,” said Farr, who believes investors have largely priced in Trump’s trade actions and aggressive statements.

Senators looking to check Trump’s trade agenda saw hope for more action after Wednesday’s vote, when the Senate voted 88 to 11 to approve language asserting “a role for Congress” when Trump imposes tariffs in the name of national security, as he has done with steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada, Mexico, the European Union and others.

But one of the measure’s strongest supporters, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), acknowledged after the vote that if the measure had had teeth, it wouldn’t have passed.

“If we had had a binding vote today, we wouldn’t have won it,” Flake, who is retiring at the end of the congressional session, said Wednesday.

He added: “Some are still giving the president some kind of license or leash here. But most of us think we know where the president wants to go. And it’s not where we want to be.”

As the Senate suggests it should have more oversight, the administration has not paused in ramping up trade disputes.

Early this week Trump identified $200 billion in Chinese imports he would hit with tariffs unless Beijing agreed to major trade concessions. The massive levies would add to the $34 billion in Chinese imports on which Trump officially imposed new tariffs earlier this month — a move that drew an immediate dollar-for-dollar retaliation from China.

Tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports remain in place on most countries around the world, despite protests from Republican lawmakers and long-standing international allies.

Trump’s ability to unilaterally impose trade measures comes after Congress has repeatedly ceded its authority over trade through laws and fast-track agreements. That approach had worked well for congressional Republicans and other free-trade advocates, as presidents negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other pacts. Then Trump arrived determined to ride roughshod over all of it.

Many lawmakers from both parties believe Trump abused his authority in invoking Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which allowed him to unilaterally impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports after his administration determined they posed a threat to U.S. security. He’s now threatening to do the same with automobiles, which lawmakers are warning could be even more ruinous to the economy.

Trump’s rejection of free trade is his most pronounced break from traditional Republican Party doctrine. But by most accounts, the president cannot be dissuaded from the protectionist views he formed decades ago and made a centerpiece of his campaign for president.

“He’s very true to what he said he was going to do during the campaign for president,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

For months, Roberts and other Republicans have been sounding the alarm about retaliatory tariffs on farm country and elsewhere, and warning that a trade war threatens the strong economy that will be the GOP’s calling card in the upcoming midterm elections, in which Democrats will aim to retake control of Congress.

A majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of trade and think escalating tariffs with China will be “bad” for jobs, according to the Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted from June 27 to July 2. There’s more worry about rising prices — nearly three-fourths of Americans believe tariffs will be bad for the cost of imported goods, according to the poll.

And even though Trump’s support in the 15 states most affected by the trade war remains high, a majority of respondents in those states also said they disapproved of the president’s handling of international trade.

But when people are asked what their top issues are heading into the midterm elections, trade is low on the list, below issues such as the economy, jobs, health care, immigration, guns and taxes, according to the recent poll.

That may be in part because most Americans aren’t feeling the impacts of these higher import taxes yet. The tariffs in place so far — and the retaliatory measures from other countries — will cost the average family about $80 more a year, according to economist Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics. Many large companies aren’t even passing the additional costs on to consumers yet because they knew the tariffs were coming and planned ahead by buying supplies before the higher prices went into effect.

“The impact is fairly negligible for most Americans right now,” said Chris Ellis, director of the Survey Research Laboratory at Bucknell University.

Phil Ramsey, chair of the Indiana Soybean Alliance membership and policy committee, said he speaks multiple times a day with other farmers in his state.

“Most of us farmers are extremely patient,” said Ramsey, a 58-year-old soybean and corn farmer who voted for Trump and attended his inauguration. “We dump hundreds of thousands of seeds and fertilizer into these fields. Then we wait for them to grow. We know it will happen.”

But lawmakers from farm states are cautioning Trump that he is testing voters’ patience.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said trade was a constant theme in 10 county meetings last week in his home state.

“People are very nervous, and they’d like to have me say, ‘Well, we’re going have this settled by September the 15th or November the 15th.’ I can’t give them that assurance,” Grassley said. “I can just tell them the president’s negotiating approach is the longer you negotiate, the better deal you get. And so everybody’s nervous, and it’s costing a lot.”

He warned that “as time goes on, as prices go down, there’s less patience” from the voters for the president.

Scott Clement and Tom Heath contributed to this report.