The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump admits his trade war could lead to recession but says ‘I have to do it’

President Trump on Aug. 20 said “somebody had to take China on” and touted the “long-term” benefits of the trade war with China. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump has spent days arguing that recession fears are a media construct meant to take him down. His aides have told us that the “fundamentals of our economy are very strong” and that there is no recession on the way. They even falsely denied that he’s looking at quick fixes (such as a payroll tax cut) to ward off economic pain.

But Tuesday, Trump sang a much different tune. Rather than play off the idea of a downturn, Trump leaned into it — and even suggested that a short-term recession might simply be the cost of waging his much-needed trade war with China.

After getting a question about the trade war, Trump launched into an impassioned defense. At one point, he entertained the idea that there might be a two-month recession, or something similar, but argued that the trade war had to happen, regardless.

“I am doing this whether it’s good or bad for your statement about, ‘Oh, will we fall into a recession for two months?’ The fact is, somebody had to take China on,” Trump said.

“Whether it’s good for our country or bad for our country, short term, it had to be done,” he said, repeating that “whether it’s good or bad, short term, is irrelevant.”

He suggested he was doing something his predecessors should have done. “My life would be a lot easier if I hadn’t taken China on. But I like doing it because I have to do it,” he said, maintaining that the stock market could be 10,000 points higher if he hadn’t.

“Somebody had to take on what China was doing to the United States economically,” he said. “It should have been done by previous presidents.”

A couple of points: First, the entire monologue undercuts Trump’s regular assurances that the trade war isn’t hurting the economy. He has frequently said (wrongly) that China pays for the tariffs, and his administration has argued that the impacts are negligible — whether on consumer prices, on the stock market or with a potential downturn. Trump has argued that the Federal Reserve is to blame. “China is not our problem, though Hong Kong is not helping,” he tweeted last week. “Our problem is with the Fed. Raised too much & too fast. Now too slow to cut.” Now the president says the stock market could be 10,000 points higher if he didn’t do this? That’s quite an admission.

The fact that Trump is now entertaining the possibility of a downturn shows he knows he can deny, deny, deny for only so long. At some point, it’s going to happen or not, and if it does he’s going to have to deal with it. If it happens after his administration has been shouting “All is well” like Kevin Bacon in “Animal House” for months, it will be all the worse politically.

But the second point is more important. Trump could continue to argue that the trade war isn’t to blame for all this, but he has apparently realized that that’s too implausible. He has decided (correctly) that he’s going to have to own any kind of a downturn or recession that might happen, so he has set about making the argument that it would be temporary pain in the service of a long-term gain.

Which makes some sense. Trade wars are wars of attrition, in which both sides apply pain on themselves through tariffs on imports, hoping it will force their economy to stop importing so much from the other. There may ultimately be some good that comes from that — either via a deal that’s more beneficial to the United States or via an economy that is less reliant on Chinese goods — but that doesn’t happen overnight. And when you’re in a battle to see who flinches first, things can get ugly quickly.

Telling the American people that things could get ugly, of course, has never been Trump’s strategy. Instead, he has said trade wars are “easy to win” and assured everyone that we’re winning. Now that signs suggest victory is hardly assured and that there could be plenty of casualties in the meantime, Trump is apparently adjusting his argument.

At least it’s more honest. But there’s a reason he has resisted making it: because shared sacrifice isn’t exactly something voters love voting for. And neither are presidents who have recessions on their reelection CVs.