Monday, October 14, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to sound like he was doing things with trade.

Trump made two big-sounding claims about trade today. Neither was really true.

Since Friday, Trump has been playing up a trade deal he claims he made with China as "the greatest and biggest deal ever made." He sent out surrogates today to continue the hype: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin gamely told reporters about his "expectation" that a deal would still be struck, although he was visibly less enthusiastic than Trump.

But in reality, the deal doesn't exist yet, as Chinese negotiators pointedly noted. And even if it did, it would only keep the trade war with China from getting worse than it already is by suspending some planned tariff increases. (Actually, even then, other tariffs will still increase in December, inevitably leading to retaliation by China.) 

The key talking point for Trump has been a promise—again, not yet agreed to by the Chinese government—that it will buy $40 billion in agricultural products. That's a big number, but as investors noted, it's essentially meaningless. It's also unenforceable: China has never needed to buy more than $30 billion in U.S. farm products in any given year, so the promised purchases would have to be spread over a number of years, and could always be reneged on. In the meantime, though, Trump would be immediately giving up something for nothing other than the ability to claim victory.

In other trade news, Trump announced he'd be punishing Turkey for its actions in northern Syria by raising tariffs on Turkish steel by 50%. (Tariffs are taxes on foreign goods paid for by American consumers in the form of higher prices.) During the initial backlash to his still-unexplained decision to abandon the United States' Kurdish allies and permit Turkey to attack them, Trump promised to "totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey" if that country crossed any lines.

Since then, in addition to ISIS prisoners being liberated, civilians being killed, and Kurdish politicians being murdered by Turkish-backed militias, the United States has lost its only on-the-ground ally in Syria. The "punishment" Trump is promising to impose is a return to the same steel tariff levels imposed on Turkish steel in May of this year. Turkey's steel exports have been booming in recent years and the United States is a relatively small market for it.

Why does this matter?

  • Good news that doesn't exist in reality isn't good news.
  • "Punishment" that doesn't in any way hurt the country being punished is the same thing as permission—especially if you've already given permission.
  • Presidents who have accomplishments don't need to make them up to look successful.