Sunday, August 25, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got completely spun around on what his trade policy is.

Trump is attending the annual G7 meeting in France this weekend. Today, in the space of a few hours, he managed to take about every position possible on his self-inflicted trade war. In the process, he provoked the United States' closest allies and trading partners to publicly warn him that he was losing touch with reality on the subject.

At a breakfast meeting, a reporter asked Trump if he was having second thoughts about the latest round of tariffs on Chinese goods that he's asking American consumers to pay. This was the exchange:

Q Mr. President, any second thoughts on escalating the trade war with China? 
TRUMP: Yeah, sure. Why not? 
Q Second thoughts? Yes? 
TRUMP: Might as well. Might as well. 
Q You have second thoughts about escalating the war with China? 
TRUMP: I have second thoughts about everything.

Trump added that "Actually, we’re getting along very well with China right now. We’re talking. ...But we are talking to China very seriously." In fact, trade negotiations have completely halted.

Later in the day, Trump was overruled by his own staff. Larry Kudlow, Trump's economic advisor (and an anti-tariff zealot before joining the Trump administration) went on CNN to say that Trump actually meant to say exactly the opposite:

Well, look, if I can reinterpret that–I mean, he spoke to us, he didn’t exactly hear the question. Actually what he was intending to say is, he always has second thoughts and he actually had second thoughts about possibly a higher tariff response to China. So it was not to remove the tariff. He was thinking about a higher tariff response.

Kudlow didn't explain why higher tariffs would be needed if "we’re getting along very well with China right now."

Trump has forgotten or suddenly switched his position on defining issues any number of times, and in most of those cases has been quickly brought to heel by his staff or lobbyists. Since taking office, Trump has briefly endorsed Australian-style socialized universal health care, amnesty and citizenship for DACA recipients, and reinstating the assault weapons ban, only to be reminded by staff what his "real" position is.

Today's demonstration prompted the leaders of at least two major US allies to speak out publicly against Trump. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bluntly contradicted Trump's claim that a trade deal with Japan had been reached. Boris Johnson, the new British Prime Minister, tried a different tack, ever-so-gently telling Trump in a "sheeplike" fashion to knock it off.

Why is this a problem?

  • It's a very bad sign if the United States' closest allies are publicly expressing this level of concern about its president.
  • Past a certain point, the "he misheard you" or the "you misheard him" excuse doesn't work.
  • A president who can't remember, can't decide, or otherwise doesn't know what his position is on major issues isn't healthy enough to serve.