Despite fervent opposition from an overwhelming majority of his own cabinet, President Donald Trump is reportedly gearing up to wage an all-out trade war that critics argue could have a "potentially devastating" impact on the American economy and on U.S. relations with key allies.
"[Trump's proposed tariffs] would most likely ignite a major international trade conflict."
—Bob Bryan, Business Insider
Trump's views, along with the protests of his staff, were voiced during a Monday meeting at the White House, Axios's Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan reported on Friday.
"No decision has been made" regarding the official direction of U.S. trade policy, Allen and Swan noted, "but the president is leaning towards imposing tariffs, despite opposition from nearly all his cabinet."
Axios went on to detail the specific policies favored by Trump, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon (who didn't attend the meeting), Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and policy advisor Stephen Miller:
The president and a small band of America First advisers made it clear they're hell-bent on imposing tariffs—potentially in the 20% range—on steel, and likely other imports.
The penalties could eventually extend to other imports. Among those that may be considered: aluminum, semiconductors, paper, and appliances like washing machines.
One official estimated the sentiment in the room as 22 against and 3 in favor—but since one of the three is named Donald Trump, it was case closed.
Writing for New York magazine, Ed Kilgore noted that the president should have anticipated opposition to his protectionist positions when he was filling "his cabinet with corporate tycoons and conventional conservatives." But the president's "hell-bent" push for a trade war with China and other major steel exporters isn't just causing concern among business moguls.
Politico's Andrew Restuccia and Nancy Cook recently reported that Trump's relentless insistence on "new trade restrictions has already added to the souring of the United States' relationship with international allies ahead of a gathering of the G-20 leading economies next month, heightening mounting frustration with Trump's nationalist impulses."
Bob Bryan of Business Insider concluded that the proposed restrictions "would most likely ignite a major international trade conflict."
The looming trade war has also alarmed analysts who argue that the imposition of such severe tariffs would primarily harm American manufacturing workers—the very people Trump has so frequently vowed to help. As Restuccia and Cook noted, "Trump is eager to resolve the issue because trade was such a big part of his campaign messaging, particularly to Midwestern voters in states that were once manufacturing-heavy."
But, as Gillian Tett of the Financial Times argued, the tariffs would likely have one of two effects, both of which would worsen the prospects of workers. They could, she argued, lead companies to further drive down wages in an effort to "absorb the cost of these putative tariffs."
"But the more likely response," she wrote, "is that companies would just replace workers with more robots."
So while a trade war may be symbolic red meat to Trump's base, Tett concluded, "don't expect those tariffs to help many American workers. Instead the 'winners' will be robots. However, those—of course—don't vote."