Imported automobiles are parked at the Georgia Ports Authority Colonel's Island auto import and export terminal in Brunswick, Ga., in 2011. (Stephen Morton/Bloomberg News)
Columnist

What—you didn’t know your Subaru was a national security threat?

On Wednesday evening, Trump instructed the Commerce Department to investigate whether to raise tariffs to up to 25 percent on auto imports. The official rationale for launching this probe wasn’t that foreign countries were “dumping” their products at unfairly low prices, stealing our intellectual property or otherwise engaging in the sort of foul play that administrations past have alleged when threatening tariffs.

No, in this case, Trump has instructed Commerce to probe whether imports of automobiles and auto parts “threaten to impair the national security.”

Yes, you read that right. Late-’70s British pop stars may feel safest of all in their cars, but apparently Americans today should not.

If this all seems a bit far-fetched, well, that’s because it is.

Trump also cited national security when he announced his steel and aluminum tariffs in March (“If you don’t have steel, you don’t have a country!”). The logic was shaky then; it’s maxing out the Richter scale now. 

Even U.S. automakers don’t think auto tariffs would be justified.

“We are confident that vehicle imports do not pose a national security risk to the U.S.,” said the Auto Alliance, a trade group of U.S. and foreign manufacturers that operate in the United States. “We urge the Administration to support policies that remove barriers to free trade and we will continue to work with them and provide input to achieve that goal.” 

Moreover, U.S. auto imports are dominated by our biggest military allies. Last year, 98 percent of new passenger vehicle imports came from Mexico, Canada, Japan, South Korea and the European Union, according to the Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration.

To add insult to injury, literally a day before Trump made this announcement, he told reporters that he was working to ease penalties on ZTE. 

ZTE, you may recall, is a partially state-owned Chinese telecom giant that admitted to illegally selling phones to Iran and North Korea. Our intelligence community has repeatedly called it a national security threat, saying that ZTE devices could be used as surveillance tools against Americans.

So how is it that Trump seems so unconcerned by the (real) national security risk posed by a Chinese firm that may be spying on us, and so much more worried about the (imagined) national security risk of cars made by our friends? 

Maybe this is just what happens when you’re stuck in the 1980s, when Japan auto panic reached a fever pitch. 

More likely, Trump has gotten drunk on a power that Congress ceded to the White House.

Under the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, Congress — which the Constitution says is supposed to regulate trade — authorized the president to impose tariffs when required by “national security,” regardless of any existing free-trade agreements. This law offers relatively broad language about what “national security” means, however. And compared to some other kinds of trade disputes, the process here for determining what justifies a tariff is relatively nontransparent.

All of which suggests that this authority could be easily abused. 

Previous presidents, however, have very rarely invoked it, generally for sensitive commodities such as uranium and oil. And with good reason: Slapping tariffs willy-nilly in the name of “national security” could provoke other countries to retaliate in the name of their own “national security.”

“I know if I do it, you’ll do it, too, and that could ruin the whole thing for everybody,” said Chad Bown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Unfortunately, he said, “Trump doesn’t mind ruining the whole thing for everybody.”

Besides the power trip, Trump seems to think that threatening these auto tariffs might give him leverage over Mexico and Canada in NAFTA negotiations. Those countries might be desperate to make a deal, no matter how lousy, rather than face the painful possibility of losing NAFTA altogether and getting stuck with a 25 percent auto tariff. 

Here’s the problem with that strategy.

Under the Trade Expansion Act, the president can still decide a year from now, or two years from now, to unilaterally invoke “national security” once again and override any NAFTA 2.0. Which means there’s no way to know that Trump won’t use it as extortion again, when he wants something else. 

If you’re Mexico or Canada, would you trust Trump to keep his word? 

And that, boys and girls, may be the real flaw in Congress’s abdication of power in 1962: Lawmakers clearly assumed that we’d always have a president who cared about his — and his country’s — reputation.