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The week’s main political stories, explained

Trade wars, teachers strikes, and ethics scandals at the EPA.

Thousands rallied at the Oklahoma state Capitol building during the third day of a statewide education walkout on April 4, 2018.
Thousands rallied at the Oklahoma state Capitol building during the third day of a statewide education walkout on April 4, 2018.
Scott Heins/Getty Images

Congress is still out of session and nobody got fired this week, but we managed to incorporate a lot of excitement into the week of politics anyway.

Some of that is drama coming from outside the capital, whether in the form of the ongoing surge in grassroots militancy among red-state teachers or yet another surprisingly strong Democratic performance in a down-ballot election. But we also saw action in Washington, where the president, having pivoted away from March’s steel conflict with Europe, is now embroiled in an escalating trade conflict with China. Meanwhile, another Trump Cabinet member is in hot water over a baffling array of ethics issues.

Here’s what you need to know.

The trade war with China heated up

On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced plans to impose 25 percent tariffs on about $50 billion worth of Chinese exports across a range of products to punish China for alleged violations of American intellectual property. China then published its own list of US exports that it will target in response, including cars, soybeans, and airplanes. The stock market, panicking over this, crashed, only to bounce back strongly over the next day and a half.

National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow defended the the steep tariffs the Trump Administration has imposed on Chinese exports to the U.S., in spite of a retaliation from China, in a TV interview on April 6, 2018.
National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow defended the the steep tariffs the Trump administration has imposed on Chinese exports to the US, in spite of a retaliation from China, in a TV interview on April 6, 2018.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
  • Tough tweets: President Trump’s public position, as expressed on Twitter, is that a trade war with China would be beneficial because the US runs a large bilateral deficit with China. This is clearly not true, and if Trump actually believes it and makes policy on that basis, the consequences for the American economy could be severe.
  • The art of the deal: Then again, a trade war would also be bad for China. So convincing China that Trump welcomes a trade war could be a good way for US negotiators to convince the Chinese to bend over backward to make concessions in order to avert one. This kind of “madman strategy” approach to negotiation has some obvious downsides but can certainly work under the right circumstances.
  • The bottom line: The conflicting information about what Trump is actually trying to do is unsettling to financial markets, but the president is a strong believer in the strategic value of unpredictability, so don’t expect clarification.

Scott Pruitt is suddenly in ethics trouble

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has been a controversial member of the Trump administration from day one due to his strident conservative policy views, but this week he suddenly found himself facing a mounting series of ethics woes stemming from revelations about a highly unusual condo rental situation.

This townhouse on the 200 block of C Street, NE, in Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, is amid an ethics controversy involving EPA administrator Scott Pruitt.
This townhouse on the 200 block of C Street, Northeast, in Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, is involved in an ethics controversy involving EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
  • The basics: Pruitt got a sweetheart deal on a DC condo rental whose owner happened to be married to an energy lobbyist for whose clients Pruitt’s EPA did some favors, he also seems to have billed taxpayers for some fairly lavish air travel, including frequent charter flights back home to Tulsa that don’t seem to be official business. He’s also hired a seemingly unqualified crony to whom he owes money to fill a key high-paid job at the agency, and tried to get his security detail to use a police siren so he could cut through traffic and get to dinner at a trendy French restaurant in DC.
  • Fox News trouble: All this might be meaningless, as Pruitt is seen as a strong Trump ally with a good relationship with the president, except that Pruitt got asked some tough questions about it by Ed Henry on Fox News and did not handle himself well. The president, rather famously, cares a lot about television.
  • What’s next? Democrats are, obviously, calling for Pruitt’s head. Republicans, realistically, don’t want a big confirmation fight about a new EPA administrator in a 51-49 Senate where a couple of their members are in poor health.

Teachers are on strike in Oklahoma and Kentucky

About half of Oklahoma’s public schools (serving 75 percent of the state’s students) shut down this week in a massive teacher strike, augmented by the closure of 20 school districts in Kentucky where the other schools are closed for spring break anyway. The teachers in these red states, emboldened by a successful strike earlier this year in West Virginia, are pushing for better pay and working conditions in the face of conservative legislatures that have allowed inflation-adjusted salaries to fall over the past 10 to 15 years.

Oklahoma teachers led a massive strike in front of the state capitol demanding higher pay on April 2, 2018.
Oklahoma teachers led a massive strike in front of the state capitol demanding higher pay on April 2, 2018.
Adam Murphy for Vox
  • Budget crisis in Oklahoma: The backdrop for the Oklahoma situation is an aggressive series of tax cuts — first in 2009, then again in 2012 and in 2014 — that failed to deliver the promised economic boom and instead blew a massive hole in the state budget. Due to cutbacks, a fifth of the state’s schools now operate on four-day weeks.
  • Falling pay: In inflation-adjusted terms, Oklahoma’s teacher salaries have fallen about 10 percent since 2006 from a bit over $46,000 to just above $38,000, and teachers last got a raise in 2008. There are more dimensions to the disagreement than simple pay, but falling salaries — and a desire to reverse them — are at the core of the argument.
  • What’s next? The state legislature offered $447 million in new school funding paid for by raising taxes on oil production, diesel fuel, and cigarettes, but teachers and their representatives rejected it as inadequate. Meanwhile, the Kentucky strike should grow in size as spring break ends next week.

Democrats scored a big win in Wisconsin

Wisconsin holds special spring elections every year for officially nonpartisan offices, mostly local ones but also including important state judicial posts. This year featured a fiercely contested race between de facto Democratic candidate Rebecca Dallet and de facto Republican candidate Michael Screnock. Dallet won by a comfortable 12 percentage point margin.

President Trump and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker arrive for a workforce development roundtable discussion in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on June 13, 2017.
President Trump and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker arrive for a workforce development roundtable discussion in Milwaukee on June 13, 2017.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
  • A model victory: Wisconsin is a closely contested swing state, and Dallet and Screnock are both basically normal, banal candidates, so the matchup was a good test of national messages for 2018. Dallet offered a straightforward anti-Trump message, and it worked. She pocketed Hillary Clinton’s gains with suburban professionals while clawing back some of Trump’s gains in rural working-class areas to deliver a resounding victory.
  • More to come: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had been trying to avoid holding special elections to fill two formerly GOP-held state legislative vacancies in order to dodge potentially embarrassing losses, but last week, state courts ordered him to hold the elections, so there will be two more races on June 12.
  • Onward to Arizona: The next big electoral clash will come on April 24 when a special election is held in Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District to replace former Republican Rep. Trent Franks, who resigned in a bizarre scandal a few months back. The GOP is heavily favored in this race, but they’re not taking anything for granted after their embarrassing loss in last month’s Pennsylvania special election.