According to Donald Trump's plan, the United States will begin imposing a 5% tariff on all Mexican goods early next week. The only way for Mexico to avoid the tax penalty would be to satisfy unspecified White House demands about stemming the flow of immigration.
What's more, according to the president, the tariff would climb incrementally, month by month, reaching a 25% tax on Oct. 1.
As is usually the case, many of those close to Trump told him not to do this. In fact, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer, and White House senior advisor Jared Kushner all lobbied the president to choose a more responsible course. True to form, he ignored them.
It's worth appreciating why. The Atlantic reported today on Trump's "preferred method of relief in moments of crisis."
In the days leading up to the tariff announcement, the news cycle was captivated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's first public remarks since he was appointed to his role more than two years ago.... Trump was clearly affected by the fallout. "How do you impeach a Republican President for a crime that was committed by the Democrats? WITCH-HUNT!" the president tweeted on Wednesday. [...]So while his tariff announcement was in many ways a surprise, it also had a tinge of inevitability. According to current and former aides, who requested anonymity to speak freely, when Trump feels he has lost control of the narrative, he grasps at two issues: border security and trade. Those aides said he sees these topics as reset buttons, ways to rile both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and draw attention away from whatever dumpster fire is blazing in a given week.
A senior campaign adviser told The Atlantic's Elaina Plott, "Whenever a negative story comes around, his instinct is to pivot to immigration or trade. It's kind of like his safety blanket. He knows that Fox and conservative media will immediately coalesce and change what the base is talking about."
The article added, "Aides say that the Mexico tariff decision and its developments to come represent a way for Trump to channel his anxieties and feel in control."
Or put another way, the White House has no policy process. It instead has the whims of an erratic amateur who sees two major issues -- neither of which he understands in any meaningful way -- as a pacifier. Mexico is facing an economic threat, not because our neighbor deserves punishment, but because Robert Mueller, Democrats, and news organizations made the Republican feel bad.
Your government at work.
Whether Trump intends to follow through on his plan remains an open question. Many congressional Republicans believe the president is bluffing, hoping to see what he can get out of Mexico City. Trump himself said this morning that he's "likely" to follow through on his idea, which was hardly categorical.
He's made related threats before, only to back off before doing real harm.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the Washington Post reports today that GOP lawmakers are "discussing" how and whether to block the White House's tariffs plan, raising the prospect of Republicans choosing a "dramatic act of defiance."
Having been awake since January 2017, I'm skeptical of the possibility, but the fact that Trump's party is sending these signals is emblematic of just how wrong they believe the president is.
In this case, they're right. The president's gambit may be "his safety blanket," but this is a dreadfully misguided plan.