ROBERTS COLUMN: Trump tariffs promote uncertainty

Published 12:02 am Tuesday, June 18, 2019

President Trump has declared victory in his confrontation with Mexico. After he threatened to impose crippling tariffs on $350 billion worth of goods Mexico exports annually to the U.S., that country’s leaders agreed to measures aimed at impeding asylum-seekers from Central America that flow through Mexico headed for the American border.

“If we didn’t have tariffs, we wouldn’t have made a deal with Mexico,” Trump trumpeted. “We got everything we wanted.”

The short-term headlines were certainly favorable to the president, who has made hostility toward immigrants a core component of his political appeal. But the long-term cost to Trump could be very damaging. The president’s strongest argument for a second term is a vibrant economy, and his actions are jeopardizing fiscal stability and his own re-election chances.

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The clash with Mexico is part of a much larger pattern in which the president blusters and bullies his way around the world, threatening trading partners from China and Japan to France and Canada if they don’t knuckle under to his demands. And the backlash is already blossoming.

The U.S. economy added only 75,000 new jobs last month, one of the lowest monthly totals since the last recession ended 10 years ago, and those results reflect a global economic slowdown that many economists blame at least in part on Trump’s trade tirades. The World Bank cited “rising trade protectionism” as a prime cause of weakening economic growth in 2018. James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said recently that the U.S. “faces an economy that is expected to grow more slowly going forward, with some risk that the slowdown could be sharper than expected due to ongoing global trade regime uncertainty.”

Republican senators were so alarmed at Trump’s bellicose threats toward Mexico that they were preparing to block new tariffs before the president canceled them. “We are going to have a lot of our members who are very concerned about where this is headed,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the second-ranking Republican, to The New York Times. Since a healthy economy remains a prime GOP campaign issue, he added, “I don’t know why we would want to step on that.”

The Wall Street Journal warned in an editorial that “the effects of trade uncertainty are rippling out,” and that the May jobs report was “a flashing yellow light that Mr. Trump needs to settle his trade wars and get back to promoting growth.”

The economic slowdown is not the only thing signaling danger for the president. For one thing, the new steps designed to halt asylum-seekers, such as the deployment of Mexican National Guard troops, probably won’t work. The basic reasons these migrants take so many risks to reach the U.S. — declining opportunities and rising violence back home — have not changed.

Moreover, a key element of the new agreement, under which asylum-seekers would be returned to Mexico and not allowed to remain in the U.S., is under legal assault. One federal judge has already ruled against the policy, and while his decision has been stayed by a higher court, many immigration lawyers say Trump’s approach violates well-established international principles protecting vulnerable migrants.

Judge William Fletcher has predicted that when the issue is fully briefed and argued, the government’s positions will be revealed “for what they are: baseless arguments in support of an illegal policy.”

A third risk involves the politics of trade and immigration. Yes, Trump’s base is cheering him on. But when Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats accuse the president of governing by “tantrum,” they are poking at one of his greatest liabilities: the fear among swing voters, mainly educated women, that an erratic and undisciplined president jeopardizes the security and well-being of their families.

The brightest warning light, however, foreshadows the impact of Trump’s policies on the economy. Businesses detest chaos and confusion, but the president firmly believes that he thrives in precisely those conditions. And after his encounter with Mexico, he seems more emboldened than ever to raise tensions with trading partners by threatening new penalties.

“Protectionism shows no signs of abating; rather, it is intensifying,” Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR Inc., told the Times.

Myron Brilliant, head of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, added on CNBC: “The weaponization of tariffs — the increase of threats on our economy, and on our farmers, our manufacturers, our consumers — is going to hurt our country.”

Those farmers, manufacturers and consumers also vote. And Trump’s tariff tirades risk undermining economic growth, and alienating those voters, just as his re-election campaign is accelerating.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at