When trade talks between the United States and China collapsed this week, Donald Trump’s campaign advisers saw political opportunity in the rubble. Specifically, they saw their next line of attack against the current Democratic front-runner, Joe Biden.
“The reason for the China pullback & attempted renegotiation of the Trade Deal is the sincere HOPE that they will be able to ‘negotiate’ with Joe Biden or one of the very weak Democrats, and thereby continue to ripoff the United States (($500 Billion a year)) for years to come …” Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning. “Guess what, that’s not going to happen!”
On Sunday, Trump sent global markets churning when he pledged via Twitter to impose a steep tariff increase on Chinese goods, upsetting ongoing trade talks between the two nations after China, Trump claimed, had attempted to “renegotiate.” That Trump’s campaign began planning ways to promote the breakdown—rather than swiftly changing the topic—seemed paradoxical: The promised tariff increase from 10 percent to 25 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods would likely hurt American consumers, not to mention Trump’s self-fashioned image as a master deal maker.
But in the eyes of Trump’s allies, the shake-up coincided perfectly with their anti-Biden narrative. At an Iowa campaign rally last week, the former vice president thrilled the Trump campaign by appearing to wave off China as an economic threat. “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man—China isn’t in competition with us,” Biden told the crowd. A handful of Democrats and Republicans alike bristled at those comments but, apart from the cursory issuance of rebuttal statements, quickly moved on.
Trump campaign officials, however, latched on to those remarks as part of their long-term strategy. In their eyes, Biden’s comments offered an opening to differentiate the Democrat and their man on issues they believe will be crucial to their success with white working-class voters in 2020. “It allowed him to reclaim the high ground on the China issue,” one outside adviser to the campaign, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press, told me. “What Democrat now is going to be able to out-hawk Trump on China? Whereas if he’d signed a deal that was weak, those candidates would have ammunition.”
“The VP minimizes China at his own peril,” said David Urban, who led Trump’s Pennsylvania operation in 2016. “For him to come out and say that, it was a big, unforced error, and it does allow the president to show his leadership on the issue.”
The Trump campaign’s heightened focus on China and trade offers yet more evidence of the threat they feel Biden poses to the president’s reelection, and specifically to the blue-collar constituencies that Trump was able to swing in 2016. But perhaps more crucially, it indicates that Trump allies finally feel they’ve found their angle on those issues, after months of privately worrying that the president has few policy achievements to show for them beyond tough rhetoric. During the 2016 campaign, for example, Trump pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but his replacement plan, finalized with Mexico and Canada in November 2018, likely has a slim chance of passing the Democrat-controlled House. And while officials are optimistic that increasing tariffs on China is valuable for Trump from an optics standpoint, the fact remains that, under Trump’s watch, the country’s trade deficit with China has reached record highs—precisely what he argued the tariffs would guard against.
What’s more, the very voters Trump claimed would benefit most from his trade agenda may instead be shouldering the costs. Earlier this year, economists found that farmers and blue-collar workers in areas that supported Trump in 2016 were the main victims of the tariffs. “Workers in very Republican counties bore the brunt of the costs of the trade war, in part because retaliations disproportionately targeted agricultural sectors,” the authors of the study wrote.
“Trump is inflicting genuine economic costs on the country without necessarily achieving any particular goals,” Josh Meltzer, a senior fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution, told my colleague Derek Thompson last summer. “Instead, we’ve raised tariffs on our allies and alienated them, which has allowed China to portray us as the global outlier.”
Still, Trump and his allies believe that emphasizing fair trade over free trade—specifically through the lens of China—will be key to winning reelection in 2020. They say any studies showing that Trump voters are bearing the brunt of the White House’s trade policy, or any concerns about whipsawing in the market, come from those with an anti-Trump agenda. “The American people see what China is doing. The difference is the guys on Wall Street that had been mega-donors to Hillary Clinton want to see the global marketplace expand, so they don’t care about jobs in the U.S.,” Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, told me. “That’s unfortunately where Joe Biden’s policies also fall.”
According to multiple Trump advisers inside and outside the campaign, they’re preparing to use Biden’s own record on trade—his support of NAFTA as a senator and his support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as vice president—to argue that the so-called forgotten men and women cannot trust him to put their interests first.
“The American people won’t forget that Biden fully supported TPP and NAFTA and all these other terrible deals that were made on his watch,” David Bossie, Trump’s former deputy campaign manager, told me. Echoed a senior campaign official: “We’re going to use his support of those things as a function of targeting the voters that he claims to be for, and claims to be connected with.”
The success of this strategy, of course, hinges on whether those voters will see Trump’s continued tough talk on China, on the need for fair trade, as having led to actual policy wins. It’s one thing to bash Biden for his support of past trade agreements, or for not taking China seriously as a global competitor; it’s another to showcase how pursuing a different track has produced tangible and meaningful gains for the United States. And Biden has already offered hints of what his counterargument will be, telling donors recently that should Trump be reelected, “our alliances will crumble,” and predicting the end of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Should the two candidates begin to spar more directly on China and trade as 2020 nears, Biden is also likely to call out Trump for the growing trade deficit and the lack of legislative progress on his NAFTA replacement. But Trump’s campaign appears confident that in the current political landscape, elections are won by promising to fight—not parsing the fine print.
“The fight is more important than the resolution,” the senior campaign official told me. “So, yes, we want good policy; we want to get a good trade deal with China. But politically, I’d argue it’s almost better if we don’t.”