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Trump’s tariff decision is one of the worst fears about his presidency come to life

Trump was in a bad mood. So he decided to maybe start a trade war.

President Trump Meets With Steel And Aluminum Manufacturing Industry Leaders Announcing New Tariffs Win McNamee/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

When Donald Trump was running for president, many critics worried about the way he would make decisions while in office. Trump is a man prone to emotional outbursts with little knowledge about public policy issues; it was easy to spin worst-case scenarios in which he might put the country in danger on a whim.

It now looks like those fears are coming to life — that Trump has decided to put the global economy at risk because he was in a pissy mood.

The evidence for this scary-sounding theory comes from a Friday afternoon report published by NBC News, tracing Trump’s recent decision to slap large tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum. These tariffs have already prompted threats of retaliation from America’s leading trade partners; European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker has discussed putting tariffs on blue jeans, bourbon, and Harley-Davidson motorcycles — three iconic American exports. Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo is openly warning that Trump’s actions may cause another recession.

So how did Trump come to such a monumental decision? According to NBC’s sources in the White House, it was because he got some bad press:

According to two officials, Trump’s decision to launch a potential trade war was born out of anger at other simmering issues and the result of a broken internal process that has failed to deliver him consensus views that represent the best advice of his team.

On Wednesday evening, the president became “unglued,” in the words of one official familiar with the president’s state of mind.

A trifecta of events had set him off in a way that two officials said they had not seen before: Hope Hicks’ testimony to lawmakers investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, conduct by his embattled attorney general and the treatment of his son-in-law by his chief of staff.

Trump, the two officials said, was angry and gunning for a fight, and he chose a trade war.

Think about that for a second. People inside the White House are telling the press that bad political news caused the president to become “unglued,” and that he decided the best way to respond to that was to launch a trade war. It’s policymaking out of sheer emotional pique.

How this dangerous decision-making could become the new normal

Dig deeper into the NBC story and the picture gets even more worrisome. Even after his initial outburst, Trump apparently didn’t bother to consult with his economic and diplomatic advisers on the best way to implement these tariffs. In fact, almost no one important was warned of Trump’s monumental decision before it was made, and the White House did virtually nothing to prepare for the all-too-predictable angry response from foreign leaders:

There were no prepared, approved remarks for the president to give at the planned meeting, there was no diplomatic strategy for how to alert foreign trade partners, there was no legislative strategy in place for informing Congress and no agreed upon communications plan beyond an email cobbled together by Ross’s team at the Commerce Department late Wednesday that had not been approved by the White House.

No one at the State Department, the Treasury Department or the Defense Department had been told that a new policy was about to be announced or given an opportunity to weigh in in advance.

The reason this kind of thing hasn’t happened before, according to report after report from inside the White House, is that Trump’s advisers have been able to keep his impulses in check. More sober policymakers, like Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, have figured out ways to steer him away from his cruder impulses and toward a more measured, conventional policy approach.

The problem is that Trump’s staff is disintegrating amid a series of mounting scandals. The Russia investigation, allegations of domestic violence by a top White House staffer, reports of outlandish spending by Cabinet officials, and just general frustration with Trump’s chaotic management style have led to a number of departures from the Trump White House. This has led to a weakening of the personnel wall between Trump and his more outlandish impulses.

This whole mess played out in the tariff case: A piece in Politico suggests that Rob Porter — the former White House staff secretary who resigned amid multiple allegations of domestic abuse — had been organizing meetings designed to block imposition of new tariffs. “Porter’s resignation removed a fierce opponent of the tariffs from the West Wing and revived the chaotic policy review process that defined the early weeks of Trump’s presidency,” Politico reports.

White House staff chaos is letting Trump be Trump. That means feelings dictating outcomes, policymaking by pique — consequences be damned.

It’s bad enough that this approach yielded dangerous tariffs. Imagine if the next time Trump is angry, he starts thinking about North Korea.

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