The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s trade war ‘victory’ isn’t fooling anyone

Migrants wait in Tijuana, Mexico, to apply for asylum in the United States on Sunday. (Eduardo Verdugo/AP)

President Trump’s penchant for creating chaos, confrontation and conflict — be it on trade, North Korea, a government shutdown — only to “resolve” it by getting nothing and claiming victory (e.g. falsely suggesting progress on North Korea denuclearization, celebrating a win in the Rose Garden by reopening the government as Democrats demanded) has become tiresome. (“He stakes out maximalist positions and issues brutal ultimatums to compel action, arguing that extreme problems demand extreme tactics,” as the New York Times aptly describes his act. “At times, though, it can seem like little more than smoke and mirrors substituting for serious policymaking, a way of pretending to make progress without actually solving the underlying problem.”)

Worse, Trump’s antics threaten to create real economic and/or political turmoil at a time the economy might be going soft.

In the case of Trump’s threatened tariffs that were to go into effect on Monday, shortly after the rotten May jobs numbers were released, Trump started tweeting hints of a “deal.” Sure enough, he claimed victory by Friday night, but what had he gotten?

Nothing much he didn’t already have, the New York Times reported. (“The deal to avert tariffs that President Trump announced with great fanfare on Friday night consists largely of actions that Mexico had already promised to take in prior discussions with the United States over the past several months, according to officials from both countries who are familiar with the negotiations.”)

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

This particular routine wasn’t even original. The Times reported:

This same script played out just two months ago. Mr. Trump loudly threatened to close the border with Mexico altogether unless it did more to stop illegal immigration. Mexico promised action. Mr. Trump dropped the threat. But then the flow of migrants only increased, prompting Mr. Trump to issue a new threat on May 30 this time to impose escalating tariffs that would have started on Monday. ...
Under the deal announced this past Friday night, Mexico agreed to deploy its recently formed national guard throughout the country to stop migrants from reaching the United States and to expand a program making some migrants wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are heard in the United States.
But Mexico had committed to do those things before, and it had rebuffed a more significant demand, a “safe third country” treaty, which gives the United States the ability to reject asylum seekers if they had not sought refuge in Mexico first. Instead, Mexico agreed to continue talking about such a move over the next 90 days.

The national guard was formed just in March, and there are real questions as to its capabilities. The former Mexican foreign minister recently explained on NPR: “It doesn’t really exist. It hasn’t really been set up yet. The law was just passed a couple of months or two ago.” He added: “So this is a new institution made up of old military, old federal police, old navy. They’re barely being trained. They’re not ready to go into action yet. And in addition to that, they are — they will be removed from other places.”

Moreover, Trump’s attempt to redirect asylum seekers back to Mexico is contrary to U.S. law granting asylum seekers an individualized evaluation here in the United States. (Trump’s attempt to do an end run around the law already was struck down by one district court, although the injunction is stayed pending appeal.)

Seeing less-than-spectacular reaction to his non-deal, Trump apparently invented out of whole cloth an agreement by Mexico to buy more agricultural products. This is not in writing. No one can find any evidence of Trump’s agricultural deal (and if you believe it, I’ve got a bridge to sell you).

When Trump’s crises collapse with phony wins for Trump, one never knows whether Trump has been conned by the other side (or his own negotiators), or whether he knows full well that this is a charade. Trump truly operates as if the underlying reality is meaningless; all that matters is what heroic message he can feed to Fox News, which dutifully blasts it out to the Trump cult.

However, facts do matter. When border crossings don’t dramatically taper off, we’ll be right where we were when Trump was threatening to “close the border,” another impossible ultimatum. In the meantime (as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has done so many times in dissembling on the “progress” with North Korea), Trump aides will ruin their reputations insisting that Trump got a fabulous deal — the best ever!

Trump’s imaginary wins often collide with his next dire concocted emergency. If Mexico will do all these wonderful things, we won’t need the wall, right? Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer taunted Trump after the announcement on Friday. (“This is an historic night! @realDonaldTrump has announced that he has cut a deal to ‘greatly reduce, or eliminate, Illegal Immigration coming from Mexico and into the United States. ... Now that that problem is solved, I’m sure we won’t be hearing any more about it in the future,’” Schumer tweeted.)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) early Saturday issued a withering statement. "President Trump undermined America’s preeminent leadership role in the world by recklessly threatening to impose tariffs on our close friend and neighbor to the south. ... Threats and temper tantrums are no way to negotiate foreign policy.” But they are all that Trump knows. One wonders how long Trump’s own advisers, not to mention foreign powers, are going to indulge his playacting.

Read more:

Hugh Hewitt: Trump’s big win leaves critics sputtering

The Post’s View: How Trump and Congress can really fix our immigration problems

Carla A. Hills: You can’t stop migrants with tariffs

Fareed Zakaria: Trump is destroying three decades of hard work with Mexico

Robert J. Samuelson: There is a sheer nastiness to Trump’s Mexico tariffs