U.S. declares trade war: Trump surprises staff, announces new tariffs on steel and aluminum

What a great 24 hours. Yesterday we got a snoutful of gun control, today we get job-killing protectionism. Well done again, everyone, on our carefully considered, very conservative deliberations in the 2016 primaries.

Almost as alarming as the new policy, which will slap 25 percent tariffs on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum, was the process by which Trump arrived at it. Up until his announcement this morning, his own staff apparently had no idea what he was going to do. From Jonathan Swan of Axios:

The confusion last night among senior officials on the trade announcement — a decision of global consequence — is like nothing I’ve seen in the Kelly era:

A staunch Trump loyalist inside the administration texted: “This is venturing into ‘OK, this is just too much’ territory.”

Senior White House officials had no idea what was going on, and tried to find out after seeing the WashPost story.

Here’s the now-updated WaPo story mentioned in the excerpt. Trump’s own top aides, apparently, didn’t know he was on the verge of doing this until they read about it in the paper last night. Swan tweeted out his sources’ exasperation in real time:


POTUS allegedly was advised by his protectionist advisors to impose steel tariffs of 24 percent but chose 25 because he likes round numbers. His “globalist” advisors sprang into action yesterday when the WaPo story appeared and began lobbying him furiously to rethink, apparently with some success. As late as 11 a.m. ET this morning, CNBC was reporting that Trump “likely will not announce new tariffs Thursday as top trade advisors disagree about possible steps the administration could take, a White House official told CNBC.” But Trump’s gonna Trump: Once the meeting began, he called the press into the room and announced that tariffs would in fact be imposed next week — assuming the “globalists” don’t talk him out of it before then.

The aide often named as leading the charge against protectionist policies is Gary Cohn, but there’s another top Trump advisor more respected by the right who recognizes this policy, correctly, as self-defeating garbage:


Bad for U.S. alliances and terrible for U.S. jobs as trade partners (most notably China) will inevitably retaliate with new tariffs of their own, shrinking demand abroad for American goods. Where the market will end up as retaliatory tariffs begin to bite, God only knows, but the GOP deserves the grief it’ll get from voters as the economy slows down before the midterms. And it’s not as if the steel industry is in crisis. It’s doing well lately, notes Ben Shapiro. The procedure Trump plans to use to impose tariffs is questionable too: He’s invoking a “national security” exemption to a 1962 trade law, setting a precedent that other countries may exploit in the future to evade international trade regulations when they see fit. So stupid is this policy that I’m tempted to say his dissenting advisors should walk over it — but on what grounds? Protectionism is one of the few things Trump has been consistent about. Cohn, Mattis, Tillerson and the rest were under no illusions about that when they agreed to serve. They bought the ticket. Enjoy the ride.

One more fun bit from Swan, just to show you how deeply considered this momentous shift was:

[T]he loss of staff secretary Rob Porter contributed to the chaos here. Porter controlled the paper flow and oversaw the weekly trade meetings in the Roosevelt Room. What happened over the past 24 hours was a complete breakdown in White House process.

Trump loses a gatekeeper due to wife-beating and a few weeks later we’re in a global trade war. Very stable genius!

I assume there’ll be a limited walkback next week, with Trump announcing that tariffs will be targeted and U.S. allies will be exempt. That at least would help calm Mattis’s nerves about frayed relationships. But he can’t scrap the policy altogether, having announced it this morning to the media. In fact, I wonder if that’s *why* he announced it. Now that it’s out there, his aides have no choice but to stop trying to talk him out of it, swallow their disgust, and start trying to help him carry it out. He’d lose too much face now by reversing course.

Update: Trump critic Ben Sasse is first out of the gate: “Let’s be clear: The President is proposing a massive tax increase on American families. Protectionism is weak, not strong. You’d expect a policy this bad from a leftist administration, not a supposedly Republican one.”

Update: Larry Kudlow, who normally can’t say enough nice things about Trump, turns sour:

Update: John McCormack of the Weekly Standard notes that Mike Lee saw this coming, introducing a bill last year that would have reclaimed some power over tariffs for Congress. He knew what Trump was apt to do and wanted to head him off at the pass. The bill went nowhere. Will it get traction now? There’s a free-trade consensus in Congress, I think, but Democrats will feel pressure from Berniebros not to cooperate. Ryan and McConnell would need two-thirds majorities to pass something and overcome a Trump veto. That’s a high bar but maybe not impossible.

Update: Ryan and McConnell can’t find a two-thirds majority with polling numbers like this?