For the first two years of his presidency, Donald Trump bore an existential fear of the Russia investigation. And more often than not, he focused his ire on one man: then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
It’s possible the bigger threat to Trump’s presidency is now the economy, which is showing increasing signs of instability. And just as before, Trump appears genuinely worried and has found one man on which to focus his blame: Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome H. Powell.
Powell could be in for a world of pain ahead of the 2020 election — especially if things do go south.
With the stock market tanking following Trump’s announcement of new China tariffs — amid other warning signs — the Trump administration on Tuesday gave itself a mulligan and delayed some of the more high-profile tariffs until late this year. That was the first sign there was real concern; Trump after all, had announced the tariffs less than two weeks earlier, and pulling back on them could easily be seen as a sign of weakness in his standoff with the Chinese.
That precipitated a rally in the stock market Tuesday. But then Wednesday, the inverted yield curve — which is generally acknowledged as one of the most prescient indicators of a recession — delivered more bad news. The markets fell again.
And Trump’s reaction to it all should erase any doubt about how concerned he is. He has spent much of the past 24 hours bashing Powell for not cutting the Fed’s interest rate fast enough — even as Powell has already given him some of the cutting he desires.
“Even now, you know, you see the interest rates,” Trump said Tuesday afternoon in Pennsylvania. “I’m paying a normalized interest rate. We should be paying less, frankly. This guy has made a big mistake. He’s made a big mistake — the head of the Fed. That was another beauty that I chose.”
Trump then took Powell to task on Twitter on Wednesday, after the inverted yield curve news.
“The Great [Fox Business host] Charles Payne ... correctly stated that Fed Chair Jay Powell made TWO enormous mistakes,” Trump began. “1. When he said ‘mid cycle adjustment.’ 2. We’re data dependent. ‘He did not do the right thing.’ I agree (to put it mildly!).”
Trump then returned to the subject a couple of hours later, arguing explicitly that his China trade war, which economists have spotlighted for their increasingly dour forecasts, is not to blame — Powell is.
“China is not our problem, though Hong Kong is not helping,” Trump said, referring to unrest in the latter. “Our problem is with the Fed. Raised too much & too fast. Now too slow to cut.”
He added: “Spread is way too much as other countries say THANK YOU to clueless Jay Powell and the Federal Reserve. Germany, and many others, are playing the game! CRAZY INVERTED YIELD CURVE! We should easily be reaping big Rewards & Gains, but the Fed is holding us back.”
Trump his criticized Powell before, but he’s now upping the ante — expressing regret for appointing him (just as he did for Sessions) and more explicitly highlighting his mistakes (just as he did with Sessions’s Russia recusal, etc.).
As I argued earlier this week, the odds of a downturn or even a recession are perhaps Trump’s biggest hurdle to reelection. Amid all his controversies and unpopularity, the economy is what has buoyed Trump. Were it to go away or be neutralized, it’s difficult to see his already-difficult reelection math adding up. Even if it just costs him a few percentage points worth of voters, it would start to look insurmountable pretty quickly — unless he’s got a pretty badly wounded Democratic opponent.
Trump’s strategy in blaming Powell for whatever lies ahead would seem twofold: 1) He can lean on Powell to give him what he wants for fear of shouldering the blame for anything bad that happens (perhaps forestalling economic pain until after 2020). 2) If and when that bad stuff does happen, he can simply do what he always does and say, “It’s not my fault; this guy wouldn’t listen to me.”
Layer on top of that the complex inner workings of the Fed and economics in general, and very few people will truly know whom to believe. Even if economists side with Powell and blame Trump’s trade war (as they are now), it will be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: the “deep state” working to take Trump down by kneecapping his great successes on the economy to unseat him, once and for all.
It may not be enough to save Trump’s presidency if such a downturn were to come to pass, but he and some allies in conservative media are clearly already planning for that eventuality. That’s both an indication of how concerned he is and how ugly this all could get.