There has always been a massive contradiction at the heart of the Trump administration’s trade policy. For two years, the president has pursued an aggressive protectionist agenda: jettisoning one international trade deal after another, cannonballing the nation into costly trade wars with China and the EU. All the while, his advisers and enthusiasts have insisted that the president has deployed these protectionist tactics to achieve free trade outcomes, pressuring China to end its unfair trade practices, compelling Europeans to drop tariffs of their own. White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow is fond of saying that Trump’s “goal down the road is zero tariffs” with China: “Tariffs are a negotiating tool. They are part of his quiver.” In this vein, Republican columnist Marc Theissen has claimed that Trump “is not a protectionist,” but “is using tariffs as a tool to advance a radical free-trade agenda.”
Pro-trade officials like Kudlow say these things partly out of political necessity—U.S. trade laws permit a president to impose tariffs unilaterally only under certain conditions—and partly as an attempt to nudge the president around to their own way of thinking, a time-honored tactic in this administration. But they are lies: Whatever else he is, Trump is a protectionist through and through. He has been one for decades, and he has never bothered to pretend otherwise.
But it’s one thing not to bother throwing your advisers a bone. It’s another thing altogether to do what Trump did on Twitter Friday morning: to expose, very plainly and simply, the exact way in which your advisers have been bullshitting to protect you.