President Trump has moved dramatically to pull free from Congress in recent weeks by slapping huge trade penalties on Chinese imports and directing the construction of a wall along the Mexico border, looking to solve issues that dogged Democrats and Republicans for decades in a way that could help his reelection bid.
The risky moves mark Trump’s attempt to deliver on two of his core campaign promises in the face of a Democratic House and muted GOP opposition in the Senate, as he seeks to cast himself as a defiant chief executive willing to act alone, no matter the global repercussions.
“The president is extremely comfortable in the job, more comfortable than he’s ever been,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s top congressional advisers. “He feels he’s gotten the rhythm.”
The consequences of Trump’s unilateral actions could be profound.
When he declared a national emergency in February along the Mexico border, he rewrote the powers of the presidency to give himself authority to move taxpayer money to suit his demands. And the 25 percent tariffs he imposed against $200 billion in Chinese imports on Friday pit the United States against one of its largest trading partners, which may retaliate in ways that could cause the U.S. economy to shudder.
In both cases, he has seized on intractable problems — on trade and immigration — that both parties have long failed to resolve. His actions echo the “I alone can fix it” promise he made during his 2016 campaign, a vow that shocked many lawmakers at the time because of its imperial overtones.
Trump portrayed himself as a pragmatic businessman who knew how to cut deals domestically and abroad. But time and again this year, he has shunned that approach by deciding to follow his own impulses.
“He just carries forward with what he wants to do, the Constitution be damned, the institutional guardrails be damned, professional guardrails be damned and the leaders of his own party be damned,” said Barbara Perry, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. “No one is standing up to him, and they fear him now.”
His decision to take such extreme steps as he begins his reelection effort does not surprise many of his advisers. He has remained fixated on Mexico and China since the early days of his campaign, often invoking violent imagery when discussing both countries.
During his campaign kickoff event in 2015, he said Mexico was bringing “rapists” into the United States, a phrase he used a year later referring to Beijing and trade. “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing,” he said.
A key element of Trump’s new, unbound phase is the acquiescence of many Republicans who surround him, both inside the White House and on Capitol Hill. During the first two years of his administration, Trump was hemmed in by constraints — including people who tried to limit his impulses and prevent quick decisions that might upset other parts of the Republican agenda.
Then-National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn along with former staff secretary Rob Porter, constrained Trump’s efforts to rip up trade deals. Congressional Republicans urged the president to delay major decisions about building a wall on the border. Trump agreed, often reluctantly, to follow their advice, focusing instead on repairing the economy and building up momentum.
That has all changed this year.
Trump is surrounded by top advisers and GOP leaders who applaud and embolden his instincts. Numerous key agencies — including the Pentagon, the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Homeland Security and the Small Business Administration — are run by acting leaders who have not been confirmed for the posts by the Senate.
The decisions to act alone, without congressional approval, to crack down on China and use Pentagon money for a border wall also came during the first six months of acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s tenure. Mulvaney has set the tone for removing obstacles from Trump’s path, and he and his advisers have said they are striving to “let Trump be Trump.”
On trade, this has freed the president to use his favorite economic weapon: tariffs.
The penalties are a type of tax imposed on U.S. imports and paid by U.S. companies that bring the products into the country. Trump inaccurately describes tariffs much differently, saying they are a penalty paid directly by the Chinese in a way that reaps billions of dollars in income for the U.S. Treasury. Even though the Chinese don’t directly pay the tariffs, these penalties drive up the costs of their products and make them less attractive to American consumers.
Trump’s National Economic Council director, Larry Kudlow, contradicted the president on Sunday, acknowledging that American consumers end up paying for the administration’s tariffs on Chinese imports. “Both sides will suffer on this,” Kudlow said.
Republicans for years have tried to lower tariffs to bring down costs for U.S. consumers and businesses, and some have continued to warn him that his steps might backfire.
But Trump has increasingly dismissed those concerns, arguing that his supporters believe he is fighting for them and won’t punish him, according to administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
When the stock market slid leading up to Friday’s deadline, White House aides said Trump complained but did not see a need for reversing course.
Aides said the moves this year, while stark, are a continuation of the approach he has taken since taking office. In 2017, he also withdrew from a climate agreement with other world leaders, withdrew from a nuclear deal with Iran and backed out of a broader trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In 2018, Trump announced he was moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, something the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations had refused to do.
This recent burst of executive action has had some limits. Trump tried to pressure Senate Republicans to confirm two political loyalists — Herman Cain and Stephen Moore — for the Federal Reserve Board, but he was rebuffed and both men had to withdraw from consideration. Similarly, Trump has tried to pressure foreign leaders from oil-producing countries to lower oil prices, but prices have ticked higher in recent months and raised costs for U.S. consumers. Last December, Trump ordered the withdrawal of about 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, then reversed course and decided to leave 400 troops in the country in the face of military concerns and criticism from Congress.
But few issues have hamstrung Washington in recent decades as much as trade and immigration, and his actions this year could refocus attention on whether he is able to deliver on campaign promises in those areas.
Trump’s “America First” promise during the campaign resonated with many blue-collar voters in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and their support could prove crucial to his reelection chances next year. Many said they were willing to back a candidate who did things differently in a way that shook up Washington, even if that meant bypassing Congress.
“He sets aside political risk to do what he thinks is best for the country, because I don’t think this is necessarily a popular political move,” said Roy Bailey, who helped Trump during the 2016 campaign and was finance chairman of the America First Action Super PAC. “I think this is him putting the country first despite the politics of it, and that is the most refreshing thing for me.”
But critics said Trump’s recent actions are merely an extension of his freewheeling political and business career — using short-term measures to address complicated issues that deserve more rigorous treatment.
“He prefers to try to govern by fiat instead of actually doing the hard work of building coalitions and making deals,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a history of White House chiefs of staff. “This was supposed to be ‘The Art of the Deal,’ and we’re not seeing any dealmaking. We’re seeing a guy who knows one thing, and that is campaigning.”
Correction: This article has been updated to note that Roy Bailey is no longer the finance chairman of the America First Action Super PAC.