When it comes to the Trump administration’s approach to trade with China, there are two important stories playing out simultaneously. What the White House hasn’t yet explained, however, is why the two stories are so badly at odds with one another.
On the one hand, Donald Trump appears to be pushing the United States closer to an escalating trade war with Beijing. NBC News reported yesterday afternoon:
Trade tensions between Washington and Beijing appeared to boil over this weekend, with China slapping a 25 percent tariff on 545 American imports, including salmon, whiskey and orange juice. The tit-for-tat taxes are a direct response to the Trump administration making good on its threats to impose tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese imports, which was announced Friday.
“The Chinese side doesn’t want to fight a trade war, but facing the shortsightedness of the U.S. side, China has to fight back strongly,” the Ministry of Commerce said in a statement.
The Republican president escalated matters further late yesterday, requesting that his administration prepare a list of $200 billion in Chinese goods that he would be penalize with new tariffs. If Trump follows through, Beijing will no doubt respond in kind, and so on and so on.
All of this comes on the heels of the American president directing his Commerce Department to ease penalties on a Chinese telecom company called ZTE, after it was accused of violating American sanctions and using its products for foreign espionage.
Trump declared last month that as a result of the penalties, there were “too many jobs in China lost” – as if the White House’s principal focus was on job losses in China.
After the Trump administration agreed to ease ZTE’s punishment, the move faced considerable bipartisan pushback on Capitol Hill, and the Senate voted yesterday to reinstate the penalties against the Chinese company, adding a measure to the annual defense policy bill that passed 85 to 10.
“The White House has already objected to the Senate provision and vowed to try to strike it before the bill becomes law,” the New York Times reported.
Something about this doesn’t add up.
Trump wants to “get tough” on China, even if that means engaging in a costly trade war, and even if that has a short-term adverse effect on the domestic economy. At the same time, Trump also wants to go easy on a specific Chinese company that his own administration believes is guilty of serious wrongdoing, even if that means going against the president’s own congressional allies, and even if that means overlooking the concerns his own FBI director recently raised.
I’m not aware of any evidence of corruption surrounding Trump’s handling of ZTE, and it’s possible there’s a benign explanation that the White House hasn’t yet shared. I’m curious, though, to know what it might be.
A Washington Post analysis explained last month, “Just about everything is odd about Trump’s support” for this Chinese telecom company. Given the president’s increased aggression toward China on trade, his position is even stranger now.