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Trump struggles to understand the basics of his own tariffs policy

Trump is convinced that China is "paying us billions of dollars a month" thanks to his tariffs. It suggests he still doesn't understand the basics.
File photo taken in November 2017 shows U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
File photo taken in November 2017 shows U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

A couple of months ago, Donald Trump boasted at a White House event that thanks to his tariffs, there's "a lot of money coming into the coffers of the United States of America. A lot of money coming in." Soon after, the president released a video via social media in which he said Americans are "taking in a lot of money" as a result of his tariffs.

A month later, the Republican reversed course, suggesting to the Wall Street Journal that the tariffs he'd spoken about for months may not actually exist. "We don't even have tariffs," Trump said, adding, "Where do we have tariffs? We don't have tariffs anywhere."

On Thanksgiving, he switched back to his original position.

"Now, as of already, we're taking in -- right now, we're taking in billions. China is -- people don't understand this: China is right now paying us -- right now, paying us billions of dollars a month. That's never happened before."

It's true that it's never happened before, but it's also true that it's not happening now. Nearly a year after Trump launched a trade war, assuring Americans that the fight will be "easy" to win, the president is still confused about the basics of his own policy.

There is no foreign money "coming into the coffers of the United States" from China as a result of the tariffs. As Politico recently explained, "President Donald Trump said Monday that China is paying the U.S. billions of dollars in tariffs as he ramps up his trade war with Beijing. But that's inaccurate: American consumers and businesses are the ones who will be paying higher costs for imports after he slapped penalties on $200 billion in Chinese goods."

This is not some obscure triviality, only of interest to trade wonks. Rather, this is the principal presidential defense of his entire policy: Trump has told Americans, repeatedly over the course of several months, that "billions" of dollars are filling U.S. coffers from Beijing. It's proof, according to the Republican, that his entire strategy has merit.

Reality, however, should still have some meaning. The actual amount of money China is paying us as a result of Trump's tariffs is zero. When the American president boasted on Thanksgiving that China is "paying us billions of dollars," he was off by billions of dollars.

Trump's entire defense is based on payments that simply don't exist outside his overactive imagination.

Either the president doesn't know this, in which case his entire trade gambit is being driven by his profound ignorance, or Trump understands the details perfectly well, and he's just brazenly lying to the public, hoping Americans won't know the difference.

Either way, if the president sees this money as proof of his policy's merit, shouldn't the absence of that money be evidence of his policy's failure?