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White House hedges on key Trump economic policy

Donald Trump announced plans to get tough on trade with China. The White House is now making clear those plans may never be implemented.
Image: US President Donald J. Trump
epa06525535 US President Donald J. Trump speaks on domestic violence during a meeting on taxes, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA,...

When it comes to Donald Trump's trade tariffs, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is one of the administration's most enthusiastic advocates. He may, however, need to work on his presentation.

On CNBC yesterday, Ross reflected on $50 billion in Chinese retaliatory tariffs, which rattled both investors and a whole lot of American farmers. The cabinet secretary, however, shrugged off Beijing's move, saying $50 billion in tariffs is "hardly a life-threatening activity.”

As policy defenses go, arguing that Trump's burgeoning trade war won't literally kill anyone isn't exactly a great sales pitch.

Even more surprising, however, was the White House's not-so-subtle suggestion that Trump's policies might not take effect.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow stressed U.S. tariffs announced on Chinese goods are still only proposals that might never take effect as the Trump administration sought to tamp down fears of a trade war."None of the tariffs have been put in place yet, these are all proposals," Kudlow said in an interview Wednesday with Bloomberg News. "We're putting it out for comment. There's at least two months before any actions are taken."

The president's top economics adviser also emphasized to Fox Business yesterday, "Nothing concrete has actually happened. These are proposals."

At yesterday's White House press briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked whether the president intends to follow through and impose the tariffs he's been talking up for the last month. She hedged, saying, "Look, we’re going through the review period."

Asked again if the tariffs will take effect, Sanders replied, "I’m not to get ahead of the process of where we are." Asked once more, the president's spokesperson wouldn't commit to a specific course.

I won't pretend to know how this is going to turn out; I suspect even White House officials can't say with any confidence. But if the administration backs away from Trump's already announced tariffs on Chinese goods, we'll be reminded of two key truths.

First, this president is really bad at bluffing. The apparent idea behind the White House policy was to intimidate China into making some concessions. If yesterday was any indication, however, it's the Trump administration that's hedging on implementing its own plan.

And second, if the president fails to follow through on his bad idea, Trump will again look weak in Beijing's eyes. As regular readers know, in the early months of his presidency, Trump repeatedly embarrassed himself with China, to the point that the American president became the subject of mockery in China’s state-run media. One headline last April read, “Trump slaps self in face, again.”

It's hard not to wonder if we're poised to see the same thing happen once more.