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The trade deals Trump thinks he understands, but doesn't

Donald Trump doesn't understand U.S. trade with South Korea nearly as well as he thinks he does.
Image: First Lady Melania Trump Hosts A Celebration Of MilitaryMothers Event
U.S. President Donald Trump hosts an event for military mothers on National Military Spouse Appreciation Day with is wife, first  lady Melania Trump, in the East Room of the White Hosue May 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. 

During Barack Obama's last year as president, 88% of South Koreans said they had confidence in the American leader to do the right thing. In Donald Trump's first year in the White House, that South Korean confidence has dropped to 17%.

Today's developments probably won't help.

Trump had nice things to tweet Friday morning about his meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-In. Hours later, standing just a few feet from the foreign leader, Trump slammed the country for its trade practices.The president welcomed South Korea's cooperation on confronting the North Korean nuclear threat, even as he criticized the country for exporting more to the United States than it imports, restricting sales of U.S. autos, and enabling China in circumventing global trade rules.

The Washington Post's report quoted the American president saying, "From when the U.S.-Korea trade deal was signed in 2011 to 2016 -- and you know who signed it, you know who wanted it -- our trade deficit with South Korea has increased by more than $11 billion. Not exactly a great deal."

I'm reasonably sure Donald Trump has no idea "who signed" this trade agreement and/or "who wanted it." By mentioning the year 2011, Trump seemed to be whining about Barack Obama again, but what the current president may not understand is that the existing U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, known as Korus, was originally signed in 2007 -- by George W. Bush.

As for "who wanted it," that would be most of the Republicans in Congress at the time.

What's more, if you read the quote carefully, you'll notice that Trump apparently works from the assumption that if we have a trade deficit with a country, then it's automatically proof of a bad deal that he thinks he can fix. The reality is more complex. (Note his recent confusion about U.S. trade with Germany, a subject Trump also spoke about at length despite not having his facts straight.)

What's especially annoying about this isn't just Trump's ignorance about a subject he claims to care a great deal about, but also how slow he is to get up to speed. The Republican president first started threatening to terminate our existing trade agreement with South Korea in April, saying without any details that it was "a horrible deal" that has left America "destroyed."

He's had a couple of months to learn why he's supposed to be so opposed to the policy. Trump may not have used that time wisely.

As we discussed at the time, there's no reason to believe Trump has any idea what's in this trade deal. It's far more likely Trump simply assumes that any trade deal, practically by definition, must reflexively be rejected, unless he's helped negotiate its terms. When he's under the false impression that Obama struck the deal, Trump is all the more certain of the agreement's flaws.

In practice, however, the president does not appear to have any idea what he's talking about.