Donald Trump's Ford Focus
The president-elect’s tweets about the automaker might be a preview of how he’ll deal with companies that displease him.
On Thursday evening, President-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter to announce that he “Just got a call from my friend Bill Ford, Chairman of Ford, who advised me that he will be keeping the Lincoln plant in Kentucky - no Mexico.” He followed up a few minutes later to assert his role in the decision: “I worked hard with Bill Ford to keep the Lincoln plant in Kentucky. I owed it to the great State of Kentucky for their confidence in me!”
The tweets received almost immediate pushback: According to several news outlets, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, Ford had never planned to move the plant in question to Mexico. In fact, the company had simply been planning to phase out American production of one car model, the Lincoln MKC, by 2019—a move which would have had a net-zero effect on employment in the Louisville plant, since it’s ramping up production of other models. Though the connection between the phone call and Ford’s decision remains unclear, The Wall Street Journal later reported that “people close to [Bill Ford] … see the Lincoln move as a relatively painless but authentic way to give Mr. Trump a victory even before he moves into the White House.”
So far, neither Trump nor anybody on his transition team has clarified Trump’s tweets, which, it should be noted, are not the first time that the president-elect has tweeted about the topic. In October of last year, Trump likewise claimed, both in a speech and via tweet, that Ford had decided against building a plant in Mexico because of attention he had drawn to the proposal. Although Ford quickly responded that it had not, in fact, cancelled this plan, Trump tweeted twice more to take credit for the alleged decision and assert that his opponents could not have done the same.
This type of interaction between Trump and a corporation has become significantly more noteworthy now that he will soon be occupying the most powerful office in the world. First and foremost, there is the question of the tweets’ veracity. Even if, as he claims, Ford’s ultimate decision not to shift production of the MKC to Mexico was due to his intervention, Trump’s initial statement was somewhat misleading: Not only did Ford not, in fact, have plans to move the plant in question out of the country, or even out of the state, but the company has said that it likely will not be able to move any plants out of the country until its current contract with the United Auto Workers union expires in 2019.
A second notable aspect is the president-elect’s choice of forum in which to tell the public about the phone call: Twitter. There are two ways of thinking about what that means for the American economy. One the one hand, Trump’s cavalier use of the social network was already the subject of consternation throughout the campaign, including among his own staff, who reportedly took away his phone as the election approached. When he was merely a candidate, Trump’s more off-the-cuff statements—for instance, his calls to boycott major companies, including Apple, Macy’s, and Starbucks—were easy to write off. But when he becomes president in January, Trump’s tweets will be a de facto platform for the positions of the U.S. government. Some of his more antagonistic habits—railing against China, for instance, which has already prompted pushback from the Chinese government, or continually describing The New York Times as “failing”—could have real ramifications in the global market.
But on the other hand, if, as the Wall Street Journal implies, the substance of his tweet—that Trump’s phone calls with Ford executives led to the decision to keep MKC production in Kentucky—is correct, the president-elect’s use of Twitter could be the first window into how he intends to wield his power once he enters the Oval Office. Throughout the campaign, Trump bragged that he would use his bully pulpit to keep manufacturing jobs in the United States. Already, conservative news outlets are championing Ford’s decision as an example of a “Trump Effect,” citing both his stance in October 2015 and Thursday’s announcement as evidence that he will be able to publicly pressure companies into decisions they otherwise would not make. If so, Trump’s tweet may be the first implementation of a new strategy in which the president-to-be uses the publicity his office affords to directly influence private corporations.
The problem with this approach is that the government already has a robust framework for regulating corporate behavior through various bodies, including the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. As Timothy Lee observed at Vox, the idea of a president personally calling up executives to cajole them into cooperation challenges not only the existing regulatory apparatus but also long-held notions of corporate autonomy. “Given the vast powers of the modern administrative state,” Lee writes, “few CEOs could afford to take the risk of antagonizing a freshly-elected president,” especially if Trump stocks these agencies with administrators willing to carry out his threats.
As was true with so many other aspects of his candidacy and electoral victory, President-elect Trump is likely to enter uncharted territory in his use of Twitter. Even since before his election, President Obama’s social-media feeds, both personal and presidential, have tended toward the anodyne, an apparent reflection of his relatively subdued public persona and his willingness to delegate most content creation to staffers. Trump, on the other hand, appears more inclined to embrace Twitter’s conduciveness to confrontation. Though his Ford tweets have not had any material effect on the company, they highlight how Trump’s use of Twitter could come to have major ramifications for any economic actor that threatens to cross him.