Will Trump Ever Make Up His Mind About Trade?

From the beginning of his campaign, Donald Trump was very clear about his stance on China. They were a currency manipulator, they were dealing dirty on trade, and they were responsible for the gutting of the American middle class. Here’s an entertaining amalgam of the president’s China-related tweets dating back to 2012 – and while the rhetoric moves from military paranoia to some sober(ish) trade ideas, his position is unmoving.

Here’s the problem: Donald Trump doesn’t actually understand that much about trade negotiations.

For proof look no further than last week’s trade talks with China, which the administration called “historic” and a “Herculean accomplishment,” which on closer inspection don’t represent the kind of tough stance one might have expected from Trump. The reality, at least according to one former official, is that “they got played.”

The deal saw China open up to imports of US beef, as well as pledging to allow foreign-owned credit rating and credit card companies to set up shop. Both of these points had been previously pledged, the beef last September and the credit allowances in 2001, so their inclusion in the deal is of dubious importance.

For its part, the US pledged to sell more liquefied natural gas to the China, accept imports of cooked chicken and gave the Chinese government their tacit endorsement of the so-called ‘Belt and Road’ project which aims to revamp the ancient trade route from China to Europe.

Many experts were surprised that the negotiations did not feature a discussion on Chinese regulations on technology or access to information, and that the president has declared they are no longer a currency manipulator without any substantive action on that subject.

There are also fears that supplying the Chinese with cheap natural gas will allow them to continue to manufacture at a substantially reduced cost as compared to the US. This could lead to serious obstructions to the reshoring efforts championed by the Trump administration, and create what some experts call a “colonial economy” where the US supplies the raw materials for China to then manufacture goods and resell them in the same market.

There is speculation that Trump’s softening on his scorched earth China policy has a lot to do with meeting President Xi Jinping- that the Chinese president’s nuanced approach to their relationship convinced the erstwhile pigheaded Trump to reconsider. Well, that and the substantial business interest his company has in China. He realized he and his cabal were going to get screwed by his own plans, so he changed course.

Now, to be fair, I must concede that this information is somewhat subject to interpretation. If you are of the school that believes in the future of global markets and the value of more open trade between nations, then these developments are almost encouraging. If you are of the nationalist school, the one which represents the majority of Trump’s electorate, then these resolutions are anathema. If you can separate yourself from ideology, you’ll probably conclude that the recent deal with China achieved very little.

It did not open up trade relations between the two nations in any meaningful way, nor did it place the required pressure on China to make changes to their practice that would be advantageous for the average American. The administration firmed up deals that were already in motion, tied them up in a bow and then lavished praise upon themselves for doing so.

This is the character of a Trump trade deal. Tough talk and tempered action.

The same thing happened when the White House drafted a letter declaring the intention of the U.S. to withdraw from NAFTA. This was going to be an easy delivery on a signature promise, to get out of a trade agreement that, at least in the president’s estimation, has been very good for Mexico and Canada and very bad for the U.S.

But, after receiving calls from the Mexican president and Canadian prime minister Trump softened and instead promised to begin a renegotiation of NAFTA pending congressional approval. His reason? He “likes” the other leaders and so feels like they should try to work things out. Or perhaps, someone sat him down and explained what an absolute firestorm would ensue if he were to can one of the largest free trade agreements in the world without a second thought.

More big talk, even less action.

Now, I need to stress that I am relieved that Trump is not following through on his campaign promises regarding trade. His policies were, in the opinion of most economists, going to be disastrous for both the American economy and the global community. But it still vexes me, keeps me up at night reading about trade minutia, that this shyster and con-man continues to pass off inaction as achievement. Continues to be completely unaccountable for his action, or more accurately, inaction.

Trump on trade may as well be a mop in a shirt for all the follow-through he’s demonstrated. And yet, there he is on TV, on his phone at 3 in the morning, on Fox and Friends trumpeting his successes and the historicness of his soft-rapprochement and inertia.

I guess I should be grateful – at least he hasn’t actually done anything he promised. At least the world can continue to trend towards collaboration and stability. That is until the man-baby in chief has his feelings hurt by someone and really does start pulling plugs. A thought that should give all of us pause.

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