Fifteen months ago, which was 16 months into the Trump administration, I surveyed the president’s agenda and noted that in high-stakes confrontations, he almost always folded. While he was tenacious in pursuing his central promise of a border wall, Donald Trump often talked a big game, especially on foreign affairs, only to flinch or punt when the moment of decision came.
But over the past year and change, there’s been a shift: Trump, having shed himself of the aides most likely to try to divert him or change his mind, has followed through on several of the biggest unfulfilled threats I highlighted back then. The catch is that while Trump is getting his way, many of these policies are not turning out as well as the president hoped—as illustrated by severe market jitters on Monday over the escalating trade war between the U.S. and China.
That Trump is feuding with China over trade comes as no surprise. In fact, back in mid-2018, the surprise was that a trade war hadn’t happened yet. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had vowed to slap tariffs on Chinese goods. In an November 2015 op-ed, he wrote, “On day one of a Trump administration, the U.S. Treasury Department will designate China a currency manipulator.”
In fact, it wasn’t until day 929, or Monday, that the Treasury Department applied the formal label to China. When he came into office, Trump learned that China had actually quit manipulating its currency, per government definitions, in 2014. Trump advisers convinced him that it would be counterproductive to make the designation. But on Monday, the Chinese yuan slid, and the Treasury moved.
Why did China devalue? In response to new tariffs from the United States, of course, the latest round of several. Trump had wanted to enact the tariffs sooner, but was talked out of it by advisers who saw them as a bad idea, like Gary Cohn, who served as his chief economic adviser. But Cohn is gone, and the current reigning trade guru of the administration is hard-liner Peter Navarro, who believes that a trade war will end well for the United States.
This is the template for what has happened in several of the cases where Trump had appeared to fold but has since followed through. Aides who felt he was acting either against the national interest or against his own interest have been shipped out: Cohn, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Chief of Staff John Kelly. They’ve been replaced by advisers who either encourage Trump, like Navarro, or are determined to enable rather than encumber him, such as acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and the television pundit Larry Kudlow, who succeeded Cohn.
In retrospect, the May 2018 announcement that Trump would withdraw from the nuclear-nonproliferation deal with Iran looks like a turning point. Trump had lambasted the deal as a candidate, but once entering office, he repeatedly recertified Iranian compliance with the agreement, bowing to the will of his aides. He seemed more ready to fire aides than to keep but overrule them. But starting with his withdrawal from the deal, Trump has begun following his instincts more fully.
He still makes his share of empty threats, as on Venezuela, where he talked tough and then lost interest when Nicolas Maduro’s regime didn’t crumble. But for the most part, Trump the pushover has been replaced by Trump the bulldozer. Since the Iran-deal withdrawal, he has slapped tariffs not only on China but also on the European Union, and has threatened to use them elsewhere. He labeled China a currency manipulator. After months of hesitations and threats to unilaterally pull out of NAFTA, he completed a renegotiation, producing a deal called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. He moved forward with plans for a bilateral summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. When government funding ran out at the end of 2018, he forced a lengthy shutdown.
This was “Trump being Trump,” exactly what some of his most diehard supporters had insisted needed to happen for his presidency to finally achieve liftoff. If only his aides—saboteurs at worst, obsolete sticks-in-the-mud at best—would just get out of the way, he’d have things hunky-dory in no time.
As it turns out, the results of Trump unbound have been uneven, at best. The trade war is, as my colleague Derek Thompson notes, neither good nor easy to win, pace Trump. While Monday’s stock slide may be ephemeral, it points to broader signs of softening in the economy, driven by the trade war.
Trump managed to negotiate a NAFTA replacement, but experts say the USMCA is largely the same as the old deal. And that’s assuming it’s ratified. Democrats in the House have been slow to take up the deal, saying it needs better protections for American workers—precisely the people who Trump said his new deal would help.
The president also followed through on his shutdown threat in December and January, but it was a political disaster, ending with Trump receiving effectively nothing from Democrats while bruising himself.
Negotiations with North Korea have gotten nowhere after two summits—though to his credit Trump did walk away from the second meeting, in Vietnam, when he felt no progress was being made. And Trump is now pursuing diplomatic negotiations with Iran on what appears to be, as with NAFTA and USMCA, just a rewrite of the deal that was previously in place, though whether anything will come of the push is unclear.
Largely freed of advisers who were determined to temper his instincts, Trump has been far more effective at following through on his promises. It’s just that those promises haven’t been nearly as effective as Trump promised they would be.
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