A tractor plows a field on February 25, 2014 in Firebaugh, California.
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As Trump asks for patience on trade, there’s reason for skepticism

Updated

As Donald Trump takes big risks on U.S. trade policies, the president is basically asking for the nation’s trust, telling Americans they should have confidence that he knows what he’s doing.

In Kansas City on Tuesday, for example, Trump told those feeling the pinch, “You gotta stick it out.” America’s farmers, he added, just need to be “a little patient.”

If anyone had any reason to believe in the president’s competence, the appeal would be easier. But Trump has made this incredibly difficult by saying things that suggest he doesn’t know he’s talking about. Take yesterday’s boast in Iowa, for example.

“We just opened up Europe for you farmers. You’re not going to be too angry with Trump, I can tell you.”

Except he didn’t just open up Europe for American farmers. Trump and European Union Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker began an as-yet-unresolved process in which the two sides will possibly move toward lowering trade barriers – but aside from soybeans, agriculture “is not part of the scope of the talks.”

The American president insisted this week, in reference to trade, “I understand that issue better than anybody.” I’m not sure how anyone could seriously believe that.

For example, take this argument Trump president to an Illinois audience yesterday: “We lost $817 billion a year, over the last number of years, in trade. In other words, if we didn’t trade, we’d save a hell of a lot of money.”

Except that’s bonkers. We didn’t “lose” $817 billion – the president still doesn’t seem to understand how trade deficits work or what they mean – and the idea that the United States would “save” money by ending all trade is madness.

Trump added this morning he’s even more pleased to see the trade deficit shrink than he is to see higher economic growth. Putting aside that both of these numbers were skewed in the latest report by businesses scrambling to deal with the effects of White House’s trade war, no American president should ever prioritize the trade deficit over the growth of the U.S. economy.

Jeff Spross made a compelling case in The Week the other day that Trump “is losing his already weak handle on a trade war he never should have started, and now finds himself caught in an ever-escalating spiral of tit-for-tat, leading nowhere in particular, more and more detached from any underlying policy justification, and fueled by little more than the raw fury of Trump’s ego.”

Pointing to the president’s strange trade posturing toward China, I argued a few weeks ago that Trump doesn’t appear to know what he’s doing. Things seem slightly worse now.