Donald Trump’s ability to infuriate many of the United States’ closest allies is unrivaled among recent American presidents. Abandon the Paris climate accords? Check. Withdraw from the international nuclear agreement with Iran? Check. Question the U.S. commitment to NATO? Check.
But there’s no reason to assume Trump is done alienating our friends and neighbors. In fact, it appeared yesterday that the Republican is just getting started.
The Trump administration said on Thursday that it would impose steep tariffs on metals imported from its closest allies, provoking retaliation against American businesses and consumers and further straining diplomatic ties tested by the president’s combative approach.
The European Union, Canada and Mexico, which will face 25 percent tariffs on steel and 10 percent on aluminum, quickly denounced the action and drew up lists of tit-for-tat measures, many aimed at parts of the United States where President Trump enjoys his strongest political support.
It’s worth pausing to appreciate how we reached this point. A few months ago, the president’s economic, diplomatic, and national security advisers all told him new tariffs on steel and aluminum were a bad idea. Trump announced the policy anyway – without any internal review by government lawyers or his own staff. As regular readers may recall, key officials throughout the government, including Congress, weren’t consulted or notified in advance.
In fact, as Rachel noted on the show in March, Trump seemed to blurt out the specific size of the tariffs to reporters, almost as an afterthought, reinforcing the impression that the president and his team have just been winging it on an important economic policy.
The implementation of Trump’s policy turned out to be every bit as haphazard as the formulation of the policy. In fact, about a month ago, the White House announced a delay in imposing the tariffs, apparently as some kind of negotiating tactic: the president was effectively telling our allies, “Do things to make me happy and I’ll forget about these tariffs.”
He moved the deadline for his decision from May 1 to June 1 – which brings us to today.
Why is this story important? Consider some of the relevant angles:
* For all of Trump’s tough talk about China, he’s now been tougher on our neighbors and European allies than he has toward Beijing.
* As our allies impose retaliatory tariffs, the prospect of a trade war is real.
* U.S. manufacturers, not surprisingly, aren’t pleased, either.
* There will be an impact on consumers. As NBC News’ report noted, Americans are now likely to “pay more for everything from canned soup to cars.”
One other aspect of this that’s worth keeping in mind is the question of legality. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), for example, described the move as an “abuse of authority only intended for national security purposes.”
The U.S. Constitution empowers Congress to make decisions about “duties, imposts and excises,” and generally to oversee issues related to international trade. So how can Trump make decisions like these unilaterally? Because American law also empowers the White House to impose tariffs, without congressional approval, in the name of national security.
And that’s precisely what Trump has done: he justified his new policy, punishing some of the United States’ closest allies, under the guise of national security.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it was “inconceivable” that Canada “could be considered a national security threat.”
In March, Trump, who knows far less about trade policy than he thinks he does, declared via Twitter that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” The amateur president’s assumptions in this area are poised to be tested in ways he may not be prepared for.