Since time out of mind, presidents have deployed the “Hey, look over here!” tactic to distract the public from politically damaging stories. In less than three years, Donald Trump has raised the practice nearly to the level of performance art. His latest wingding over tariffs against Mexico, however, could have lasting repercussions both for his political standing and the national economy at large.
It began, as it so often has since 2017, with former special counsel Robert Mueller, who gave a nine-minute statement on May 29 that was altogether bland to anyone who has actually read his report. “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime,” Mueller essentially recited from the text, “we would have said so.” Trump, who actually thought the report exonerated him because Fox News told him so, immediately began decompensating.
The day after Mueller’s press conference, Trump tweeted:
On June 10th, the United States will impose a 5% Tariff on all goods coming into our Country from Mexico, until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP. The Tariff will gradually increase until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied,..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 30, 2019
“An across-the-board tariff on all Mexican goods would exact a serious toll on American consumers and corporations,” reported The New York Times that day, “and is likely to generate significant opposition among businesses. Rufus Yerxa, the president of the National Foreign Trade Council, which represents the nation’s largest exporters, called the move ‘a colossal blunder.’”
“Hey, look over here!” indeed.
These Mexico tariffs are a bag of daggers hurled at the heart of the US economy … which, by the way, is not nearly as healthy and robust as we are being led to believe. Trump has already locked the U.S. into a trade/tariff war with China which is battering farmers already reeling from the worst growing season in memory. Hitting Mexico — our third-largest global trading partner, which sent $346.5 billion in goods over the border last year alone — with escalating tariffs would amount to opening a second front in Trump’s economic war.
The Trump administration has been profoundly nebulous about its legal basis for these tariffs. It is leaning on a 1977 law called the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), which gives a president the power to levy sanctions against nations that pose an active threat to the United States. The IEEPA has never been used to impose tariffs, especially against a close ally like Mexico.
Economists and business leaders of every political stripe are nearly unanimous in their condemnation of these new tariffs. The unrest has even reached the Republicans in Congress, who under normal circumstances would be on board with Trump even if he announced a plan to drop the moon on Central America.
This one’s about money, though, and really, that’s all they care about. “Defiant Republican senators warned Trump administration officials Tuesday they were prepared to block the president’s effort to impose tariffs on Mexican imports,” reported The Washington Post on Tuesday, “threatening to assemble a veto-proof majority to mount their most direct confrontation with the president since he took office.”
“Defiant,” yeah, like the time they warned him against ending DACA, or the time they warned him against instituting steel tariffs, or the time they warned him not to shut down the government, or the time they told him not to declare a national emergency. “Each time,” reports Politico, “Capitol Hill warned him not to, said he’d lose. Instead, the president listened to a small clutch of advisers, lost the showdowns and emerged from them wounded, unable to achieve his stated desired ends.” This situation appears to be another loser for Trump, either by way of Congress or in the eyes of the public at large, but he is storming forward regardless, because of course he is.
The “veto-proof majority” congressional Republicans are threatening to assemble may already be dust, unless Trump has begun making up quotes from House Republicans. In a Wednesday tweet, he apparently quoted House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) voicing support for the Mexico tariffs. No one is quite sure where the McCarthy quote came from, but if it’s accurate, there will likely be no veto-proof majority in the House.
And, of course, there is a wrinkle in all this which directly benefits the president himself. “Trump obviously views the presidency as a position to use for rewarding friends, punishing foes, and enriching his family,” reports the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). “Tariffs give him a great opportunity to do this. Not only can he put a tariff on an essential imported input for a company that criticizes him, he can give exemptions to tariffs (they always have exemptions) for his friends.”
CEPR co-director Mark Weisbrot appeared on al-Jazeera to discuss the Mexico tariffs, and wouldn’t you know, the first words out of his mouth were about Trump using them as a distraction. “The thing you have to remember about Trump is that he’s all about distraction,” said Weisbrot. “He ran his presidential campaign that way, and he continued into his presidency, and trade is the perfect distraction.”
“With Trump overseas, Pence hosted the White House meeting Wednesday in his office with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard and other top U.S. and Mexican officials to see if they could avert a potential economic crisis,” NPR reported on Wednesday. Further meetings are slated for Thursday. “The higher the Tariffs go,” Trump tweeted after negotiations stalled, “the higher the number of companies that will move back to the USA!”
Everything, but absolutely everything, is a pawn in the ugly mind of Donald Trump in the end. This two-front immigration/economic war of his will come to adversely affect almost every living soul on the North American continent sooner or later.
Let’s approach the “problems” Trump is trying to solve with a clear eye: A sound immigration policy would involve effective aid to the Central American countries where many of these migrants are fleeing from, securing a future for the Dreamers and all migrants, not caging migrants (including, of course, children) or letting them die, and dismantling the racist oppression squad they call ICE. A sound economic policy would involve improving the lot of everyone, not just Trump’s wealthy friends.
Does Trump actually believe tariffs against Mexico will affect immigration? Is he trying to shore up support from the racists within his political base? Does he have the first clue about how the economy works, and more importantly, how easily it can be damaged? Is this nothing more than a knee-jerk distraction from Mueller that he is now too proud to back down from?
“One of the most inexplicably stubborn fallacies about Trump, both among his political opponents and the broader community that’s just interested in rubbernecking at his blowzy public feuds, is the idea that Trump does things for a reason,” writes David Roth for Splinter News. “There is no evidence of this.”
All that can be said for certain is that this looks to be about to happen, and the only people who can stop Trump are the Republicans in Congress. Unless you have the lungs of a blue whale, I would strongly recommend against holding your breath for such an outcome.