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Casualties of the Trade War

Trade wars are good and easy to win, according to one of President Donald Trump’s most famous “tweets,” but the smart money on Wall Street seems to disagree. The Dow Jones Industrial average plummeted a scary 799 points on Tuesday, the other major stock market indices dropped a similar 3-plus percent, and the clear cause was Trump’s apparently ongoing trade war with China.
After a dinner meeting with Chinese President Xi Jiping at the G-20 gathering Argentina on Saturday Trump announced that he’d won such majors concessions from China as huge agricultural buys from American farmers and eliminating any tariffs on American-made automobiles, and was therefore prepared to pause a trade war that has thus far proved disastrous for both countries, which led to big stock market gains on Monday. By Tuesday the Chinese were denying they’d made anything like the extraordinary concessions that Trump had bragged about, Trump’s economic policy advisors were walking most of it back, and Trump himself was “tweeting” that “President Xi and I both want this deal to happen, and it probably will. But if not remember, I am a Tariff Man.” A later “tweet” shouted that “We are either going to have a REAL DEAL with China, or no deal at all – at which point we will be charging major tariffs against Chinese product being shipped into the United States.” Despite the poor grammar, the “tweets” clearly communicated that the trade war continues, and won’t be easily won, so the smart money on Wall Street responded accordingly.
On our way home from an evening chore we heard one of the right-wing talk radio talkers say that Trump had nothing to do with the stock market drop, and he somehow blamed it on the Apple and Boeing companies instead, but Trump and his apologists always find someone else to blame. We’re more inclined to believe the smart money opinion of the JPMorgan financial juggernaut, which told its investors in a trading note that “It doesn’t seem that anything was actually agreed to at the dinner and White House officials are contorting themselves into pretzels to reconcile Trump’s tweets (which seem if not completely fabricated then grossly exaggerated) with reality.” We’re not impressed much by JPMorgan’s prose style, either, but it does clearly communicate the truth of the matter.
Trump’s apologists would do better to argue that China’s trade policies well deserve an aggressive response, as they do indeed charge unfair tariffs and make the theft of American intellectual property a condition of doing business with American companies and benefit from the slave wages paid to many of China’s workers, but it’s harder to argue that Trump is winning. As bad as China’s trading policies might be, Trump was claiming full credit for a booming stock market and rising commodity prices when he declared the trade wars with China and most of the rest of the industrialized world, so he can’t dodge blame for things going downhill ever since. Trump’s bad habit of doing his end zone dance before he reaches the goal line make him look the more ridiculous to the American public and on the world stage every time, and harder for him to make that great deal he’s always promising. China’s dictator Xi doesn’t doesn’t have to worry about public opinion, and although world opinion doesn’t favor him it does take him seriously, and China’s economy is either the biggest or second-biggest in the world, depending on how you figure it, and prematurely boasting about the concessions you won from him probably isn’t the best negotiating strategy with a wily Chinese leader and his traditional Chinese obsession with saving face.
The sort of low-key and culturally-sensitive and behind-the-scenes negotiations that might have yielded improved trade relations between China and a formidable American economy and steadfastly principled  and experienced American president aren’t Trump’s style, however, and for now we expect more tariffs and “tweets” and stock market downturns. In the long run Trump might yet get the greatest deal ever with his bull-in-a-china-shop approach, if you’ll forgive the culturally insensitive cliche, but on Tuesday the smart money wasn’t betting on it.

— Bud Norman

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When Silence Would Have Been Golden

President Donald Trump mostly spent his extended holiday vacation on the golf course or at fancy dinner parties, but he couldn’t keep from making some news. He had the usual number of insulting “tweets,” several insulting sound bites, and sat down for an impromptu interview with The New York Times that still worth noting after several days.
The interview is so full of eyebrow-raising quotes that one hardly knows where to begin, but we might has well start with the one that got the most attention from the media during a slow and little-watched news cycle. Asked an inevitable question about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the last presidential election, Trump surprised many by saying that “It doesn’t bother me, because I hope he’s going to be fair. I think that he’s going to be fair. There’s been no collusion. But I think he’s going to be fair.”
Which is surprising because Trump has frequently characterized the investigation as a “witch hunt,” and “witch hunts” are by definition unfair, while his most loyal allies in Congress and the conservative media have lately maintained that the investigators are biased and out to get the president. Perhaps it was a holiday spirit that had Trump so hopeful about Mueller’s fairness, perhaps he was taking the high road with confidence his surrogates would take the low, and he perhaps he believes that Mueller might as susceptible to flattery as himself, but in any case it provided fodder for speculation.
When asked about the possibility of re-re-opening an investigation former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s e-mail practices Trump replied that “I have absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department, but for purposes of hopefully thinking I will be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved in this particular matter.” Which is worrisome on a number of levels.
Aside from the fact that a President of the United States speaks such un-parseable English, there’s something chillingly Nixonian about Trump’s insistence that he can use federal law enforcement to persecute his political enemies, and something more chilling yet about his apparent confession that isn’t do so only in hopes of currying favor with the special counsel. Just in case a reader might reach a more generous interpretation, Trump also had some strange praise for former Attorney General Eric Holder that made his rather authoritarian views of presidential power explicitly clear.
“I don’t want to get into loyalty, but I will tell you that — I will say this: Eric Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him. When you look at the IRS scandal, when you look at the guns for whatever, when you look at all of the tremendous, ah, real problems they had — not made up problems like Russia collusion, these were real problems — when you look at the things they did, and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that. I’ll be honest, I have great respect for that.”
Aside from mangled syntax and the failure to recall the name of the “Fast and Furious” scandals or come up with any other of the many Obama scandals, Trump is saying that his predecessor committed serious crimes and was allowed to do so by an Attorney General who put personal loyalty ahead of loyalty to the rule of law, and that he wishes his own Attorney General were just as unethical. All of Trump’s allies in Congress and the conservative media used to loathe Holder for doing what Trump respects, and when they get back to work today it will be interesting to see if they recant their past criticisms. We’re sure they’ll come up with something to say, and fully expect that their ongoing attacks on Mueller’s character will continued despite Trump’s hopefulness for fair treatment.
There was plenty of Trump’s widely-ridiculed braggadocio, too, as he claimed Chinese President Xi Jiping treated him “better than anybody’s ever been treated in the history of China,” that he understands tax law “better than the greatest CPA” and the details of health care policy “better than most.” He also claimed to have vaulted candidate Luther Strange from fifth place to second after endorsing in his Alabama’s Republican primary for a Senate race, even though there were only three major candidates in the race, and the numbers he claimed in Strange’s surge were simply made-up. As usual he could not get through an interview with about bragging about his electoral college victory, which as usual he claims is much harder for a Republican to win than the popular vote, even the Republicans are three-and-two  in the past five electoral votes but only one-for-five in the popular vote.
Trump also used a barnyard epithet to describe the Democrats’ opposition to the tax bill, while unnecessarily insulting potential Democratic ally Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state that Trump claims to have single-handedly restored to economic greatness.
The weirdest part, though, was Trump’s prediction that the mainstream media — those “very bad people” and purveyors of “Fake News” who have been Trump’s favorite target since he launched his campaign — are going to carry him to an easy reelection victory in 2020. “Because without me, their ratings are going down the tube. Without me, The New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times but the failed New York Times. So basically they have to let me win. And eventually, probably six months before the election, they’ll be loving me because they’re saying, ‘Please, please don’t lose Donald Trump.'”
Which is to say that the American public only reads or watches the news to hear about Trump, and will lose interest in public affairs all together if he’s not around, and that’s pretty arrogant even by Trumpian standards. He also expects that the news outlets that have seen their readerships and viewerships rise with the constant criticisms of Trump will commence six months of unrelenting praise so that they can go back to luring readers and viewers once he’s safely re-installed in office, which strikes us as worrisomely crazy even by Trumpian standards.
Trump is probably lucky the interview was published when people had better things to do than read or watch the news, but today the holidays are over and the government is back to work and people will once again be paying attention. Our advice is that he avoid impromptu interviews for a while.

— Bud Norman