Trump’s Two Crutches

When the president is feeling overwhelmed, aides say, he falls back on immigration and trade policy—even when unprepared.

Donald Trump reportedly turns to border security and trade when nervous. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Around 5:30 p.m. on May 30, Donald Trump announced via Twitter that the United States would impose a 5 percent tariff on Mexican goods beginning June 10, and that it would “gradually increase … until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP.” Less than 24 hours earlier, according to The Washington Post, administration officials including the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer had lobbied against the decision. But Trump was unmoved—“infuriated” after learning that a record number of Central American migrants had surrendered to U.S. officials at the border—leaving Kushner and others to relay the decision to Mexico.

Following a major policy announcement by the president, it’s common to be hit with a cascade of stories about how the decision shocked even Trump’s closest aides. Call it a perverse consistency of sorts in an administration defined by its volatility, the cycle that begins with a random and whim-driven move and ends with officials clamoring to reassure lawmakers, allies, and the public alike that all is going as planned.

But beyond fitting neatly within the shock-and-awe-and-cleanup pattern of this White House, the recent Mexico event illustrates Trump’s preferred method of relief in moments of crisis. In the days leading up to the tariff announcement, the news cycle was captivated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s first public remarks since he was appointed to his role more than two years ago. Mueller reiterated that his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice in the executive branch did not, in fact, amount to a “total exoneration” of the president. Hearing these words from Mueller himself spurred many Democrats to ratchet up calls for impeachment, and Trump was clearly affected by the fallout. “How do you impeach a Republican President for a crime that was committed by the Democrats? WITCH-HUNT!” the president tweeted on Wednesday.

In other words, as my colleague Peter Nicholas explained last week, Mueller’s remarks further inflamed Trump’s anger toward the special counsel. So while his tariff announcement was in many ways a surprise, it also had a tinge of inevitability. According to current and former aides, who requested anonymity to speak freely, when Trump feels he has lost control of the narrative, he grasps at two issues: border security and trade. Those aides said he sees these topics as reset buttons, ways to rile both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and draw attention away from whatever dumpster fire is blazing in a given week. “Whenever a negative story comes around, his instinct is to pivot to immigration or trade,” a senior campaign adviser told me. “It’s kind of like his safety blanket. He knows that Fox and conservative media will immediately coalesce and change what the base is talking about.”

That tactic often works: By the end of a week in which the lies of the White House’s representation of the Mueller report became more apparent than ever, reporters, pundits, and the stock market were all responding instead to Trump’s latest attempt to curb immigration at the southern border. (The Dow Jones closed Friday at four-month lows in response to the tariffs.)

One former senior White House official explained Trump’s instincts as a function of his intractable belief that the American people support his policies on immigration and trade, even if party leaders do not. As the source put it to me, the president thrives on the warm reception he receives at rallies and believes that those policies fuel it. The former official pointed to another time when Trump surprised his advisers by levying tariffs: In March 2018, in off-the-cuff remarks during a meeting with steel and aluminum executives, Trump announced the beginning of a global trade war by promising a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports. In this case, the former official said, Trump’s snap decision was not so much a way to distract from a particular news cycle as it was the result of “feeling good in the moment” as he bantered cheerfully with the executives. Put another way, dramatic moves on trade and immigration are not only a balm for Trump in times of distress, but also a gloss on moments already going smoothly.

That Trump reverted to tariffs on Thursday offers a clue as to just how distressing the past week has been for him. Trump is no stranger to bad weeks, of course. But according to the senior campaign adviser, he was particularly unnerved by the media attention Mueller’s statement received. “Mueller controlled the news cycle,” this person said. “It was 24/7 the last couple of days. And that’s what bothers him.” Added to that was the increasing number of 2020 candidates calling to begin impeachment proceedings against the president, a topic most have been loath to touch on the campaign trail. For any public bluster from the White House welcoming an impeachment fight, Trump has zero private desire to take one on, according to a second senior campaign official. “To be impeached?!? No one wants that,” the source told me in a text message.

Over the weekend, as the president prepped for his United Kingdom state visit, London Mayor Sadiq Khan wrote in The Observer that Trump is “one of the most egregious examples of a growing global threat” of far-right extremism. Khan accused Trump of peddling a “divisive agenda” and called it “un-British” to “roll out the red carpet” for Trump’s arrival. Upon landing in London, Trump shot back on Twitter that Khan was a “stone cold loser” who had done a “terrible job” as mayor. It made for an inauspicious start to the kind of foreign travel that Trump, a homebody who prefers the comforts of his own bed and television set, already dislikes. But whereas he could somewhat relax abroad while in the presence of, say, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has formed a close and affable relationship with the president, London is already proving far less warm.

Aides say that the Mexico tariff decision and its developments to come represent a way for Trump to channel his anxieties and feel in control. As a second former White House official told me, Trump likes that his positions on immigration and trade set him outside the establishment of both parties, because it ensures that when he talks about those topics, people will listen. "These are issues that the establishment on both sides hates Trump for,” the source said, “so he understands that no matter what's going on, people are going to care about them.” With the tariff announcement, the source continued, Trump felt he was able to achieve a “twofer” of sorts, harnessing a policy he feels strongly about as the solution to the problem he campaigned on solving.

Whether these tariffs end up materializing, however, is another question. For Trump, the security-blanket element of these spontaneous policy proposals is more of a short-term comfort—a way to ease himself through the crisis of the moment before moving on to the next one. Sometimes he does indeed follow through on his pronouncements. But often, as I wrote recently, he doesn’t. In this case, however, with the impeachment chorus only seeming to grow, and with a long week in Europe ahead of him, Trump could cling tightly to seeing the tariffs through, even as his advisers beg him not to.