Shortly after taking office, Donald Trump announced the United States’ official withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership. As a matter of substance, it was meaningless — the agreement had been dead for months. But it stood as a symbol of and a down payment on Trump’s promise of a larger revision in American trade policy.
Instead, Trump has given us, so far, exactly the trade policy that Hillary Clinton promised.
On trade, exactly nothing has happened. The long-dead TPP is still dead, but NAFTA is very much still with us. No new protective measures have been put in place, and American companies have been subject to no punitive retaliations. No legislation appears to be in the works.
This status quo acknowledges rising anti-trade sentiment on the left and right by halting forward progress on any new trade and investment deals, while refusing to take the risk of altering any existing arrangements.
Trump’s made very little progress on his 100-days trade agenda
Back in October, the Trump campaign released a “Contract With the American Voter,” outlining a “100-day action plan to Make America Great Again.”
Five of the 28 elements of the action plan dealt with trade. Of those five, only one — withdrawal from the TPP — has been done. The others were three proposed executive actions, plus one proposed piece of major legislation:
- I will announce my intention to renegotiate NAFTA or withdraw from the deal under Article 2205.
- I will direct the Secretary of the Treasury to label China a currency manipulator.
- I will direct the Secretary of Commerce and U.S. Trade Representative to identify all foreign trading abuses that unfairly impact American workers and direct them to use every tool under American and international law to end those abuses immediately.
Finally, Trump promised to introduce an End The Offshoring Act that “establishes tariffs to discourage companies from laying off their workers in order to relocate in other countries and ship their products back to the U.S. tax-free.”
None of this, to say the least, has happened. Trump has issued a flurry of grandiosely titled executive orders that often amount to little more than memos directing Cabinet secretaries to do this or that. But NAFTA withdrawal, currency manipulation, and the discretionary imposition of tariffs to protect US producers from “unfair” foreign competition are all areas where the executive branch has clear and unquestioned authority. Trump just isn’t doing it.
Financial markets’ complacency has been rewarded thus far
Back in early January, I questioned the stock market’s enthusiasm for Donald Trump’s election victory, noting that while Trump would certainly pursue an agenda of tax cutting and deregulation, he also seemed very serious about the idea of launching a trade war or seven.
Trump certainly seemed to be putting the pieces in place to do this. His friend Wilbur Ross was installed at the Commerce Department, a typically low-profile gig that does happen to have jurisdiction over things like anti-dumping tariffs and other discretionary trade policy initiatives. Robert Lighthizer, a well-qualified trade attorney and longtime pillar of the Republican establishment who was urging the GOP to abandon free trade orthodoxy long before Trump erupted onto the political scene, was selected to run the US Trade Representative’s office.
Last, but by no means least, Peter Navarro, an economist with views on trade policy that are wildly outside the political mainstream, was set up as the director of a new National Trade Council.
The starts seemed to be aligned for this troika — backed by Steve Bannon — to begin implementing a protectionist trade agenda. Trump himself, after all, has always seemed to have very little knowledge of or interest in questions of American public policy. But he’s been writing and speaking about foreigners exploiting bad US trade policy since at least the 1980s, when he was a Democrat.
Pedro da Costa wrote for Business Insider shortly before Inauguration Day that “markets are ignoring the risk of a devastating trade war under Trump” but, so far at least, it appears that the markets are right.
While all presidents face significant institutional hurdles to implementing their agendas, the three promised executive actions on trade are really things Trump could do — he has simply chosen not to. And while his one-sentence description of the End The Offshoring Act is clearly not viable as actual legislation, if he wanted to write a real bill along those lines, he’d probably find significant Democratic Party support for it. He has, again, simply chosen not to.
Gary Cohn is running the show, for now
The explanation for Trump’s inaction appears to be that Gary Cohn, the former number two at Goldman Sachs who Trump selected to chair his National Economic Council, has proven to be a more effective bureaucratic knife-fighter than Navarro, a marginal and somewhat obscure figure from academia. Back on March 10, Shawn Donnan and Demetri Sevastopulo described Cohn and Navarro as pitted against each other in a “civil war” in which “Navarro appeared to be losing influence” despite being capable of impressing Trump in face-to-face arguments.
Navarro, they reported, “has been operating with a very small staff out of an office in the Old Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House, while Mr Cohn has been adding staff to his NEC base inside the president’s residence itself.”
An additional factor is that Cohn, like Trump, is very rich. Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman reported that alongside Steve Bannon, himself a former investment banker and successful businessman, “one of the only other people whom Mr. Trump views as a peer is his top economic advisor, Gary Cohn.” Add to this the fact that conservative establishment types in the White House — Vice President Mike Pence, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, etc. — likely disagree with Trump’s protectionist campaign themes, and you have a recipe for an abandoned agenda.
One good question, however, is how long this will last. Bannon clearly continues to believe that anti-trade rhetoric is good politics, since Trump’s speeches are laced with it. Allowing the Democratic Party’s 2020 nominee to tour the Midwest complaining that Trump has broken all of his promises on trade out of fealty to an economics guru he hired away from Goldman Sachs seems like it would be a mistake. And Trump himself really has been banging the protectionist drum for decades.
So far, a continuation of the steady pace of job growth that characterized the final two years of the Obama administration has been a real bright spot for an oft-troubled Trump administration. But if the economy stumbles — or if his approval ratings remain low closer to an election — the temptation to go back to the well and actually deliver on his promises could become overwhelming.