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What Trump doesn't know about his own trade policy can hurt him

It's a problem that Trump doesn't understand trade policy, but it's a far bigger problem that Trump doesn't realize how ignorant he is.
File photo taken in November 2017 shows U.S. President Donald Trump (and Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a welcome ceremony in Beijing.
File photo taken in November 2017 shows U.S. President Donald Trump (and Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a welcome ceremony in Beijing. 

Less than a week ago, Donald Trump published a tweet updating Americans on the status of trade talks with China. The president sought to assure everyone that there's been progress, adding, "In the meantime, Billions of Dollars are being paid to the United States by China in the form of Trade Tariffs!"

Nope. Those payments from China don't exist. Trump has insisted many times that his tariffs are forcing Beijing to pay the United States billions of dollars, but that's not how his policy works. (A Washington Post analysis explained several months ago, "On trade, Trump either doesn't understand the basic facts or he doesn't care.")

In fact, the president can't seem to help himself. He repeated the bogus claim a month ago in a meeting with congressional Republicans. And then again in an interview with the New York Times. And then again in his State of the Union address. And then again in a cabinet meeting. And then again at a campaign rally in Texas. This is just from the last four weeks.

All of which suggests that Trump actually believes the talking point, even though it's plainly wrong.

Glenn Kessler, however, added a detail that I hadn't seen before.

Trump can claim that through December, his tariffs have raised about $12 billion, of which $8 billion stem from tariffs on Chinese products. But his statements go off the rails when he claims that (a) China is paying these tariffs and (b) this is a gain for the Treasury. Tariffs are paid by importers, so this is a tax paid by Americans, not China.And given that Trump has authorized payments of up to $12 billion to help farmers harmed by retaliation by China, the tariffs so far have been a net loser for the Treasury.

That second point is of particular interest. Trump is convinced that billions of dollars are flowing into the United States' coffers from China thanks to his tariffs, but when we include the administration's farming bailout -- aiding farmers hurt by Trump's tariffs policy -- the country is clearly losing money.

And while that suggests the White House's gambit is a counter-productive mistake, that's only part of the problem. If the president doesn't accept reality, then he'll continue to pursue the misguided plan, confident in its success.

Indeed, Trump recently boasted, in reference to trade policy, "I understand that issue better than anybody." He later added, "I know every ingredient. I know every stat. I know it better than anybody knows it."

The president isn't changing course because he has no idea he's moving in the wrong direction.