The chaos and bombast that have driven President Donald Trump’s White House into its deepest crisis yet just burst America’s borders.
Trump’s sudden announcement Thursday of punishing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, after a typically disorganized and opaque rollout, left much of the world feeling the whiplash that has rocked Washington all week.
“What’s been allowed to go on for decades is disgraceful. It’s disgraceful,” Trump told reporters, delivering a sudden shock to the global economy by saying he would unveil tariffs next week of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum. He further stoked fears of world turmoil Friday morning, tweeting that “trade wars are good” when the US is losing billions in overseas deals.
World powers now know what it’s been like for Trump’s fellow Republicans and staff in a week of turmoil and neck-jerking policy pivots that have left them groping for clarity and trying to work out exactly where the President stands.
At home, stocks crashed on the President’s offhanded announcement, while GOP leaders, stung by a second straight day of Trump trampling party orthodoxy after his surreal meeting Wednesday on guns, registered dissent and frustration.
“We were told at the beginning of all this that Donald Trump was comfortable with chaos – that’s how he is accustomed to operate,” David Axelrod, a former Obama administration top strategist, said on CNN’s “The Situation Room.”
“That may be OK if you are running a small family branding business, but when you are in the most important office on the planet it can have grave consequences,” Axelrod said.
Given the on-again-off-again nature of Thursday’s announcement and subsequent lack of details, there was more than a suspicion that the trade move had been fast-tracked to distract from a disastrous week.
A feud between Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the resignation of his confidante Hope Hicks, successive political blows to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and signs of multiple lines of inquiry by special counsel Robert Mueller leading deep into the President’s inner circle mean Trump has plenty of incentive to try to change the subject.
In another blow to a West Wing under siege, CNN reported Thursday that FBI counterintelligence was probing a deal sealed by the President’s daughter Ivanka in Canada to see whether it left her vulnerable to foreign agents.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders denied the President was trying to divert attention from all that with his trade announcement, saying it was hardly news that Trump thinks global commerce, particularly as practiced by nations like China, cheats American workers.
“The President is concerned about the men and women of this country who have been forgotten about, the industries that our country was founded and built on. And this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody,” she said.
Even so, Thursday’s move, which is likely to spark follow-on turmoil in Asian and European markets, offered a glimpse of how an erratic President looking for diversions amid deepening crises could act in ways that jolt global stability.
Given that the turmoil surrounding Trump seems to spin more out of control by the day, the world could be in for a rough ride in the coming months.
Still, while much of the Washington and global establishment will be bracing for more, Trump supporters are unlikely to be fazed, since his unpredictability and disdain for long-held conventions and behavioral codes are exactly why they voted for him as they looked for someone willing to shake things up.
But anyone who is not in his famously loyal voting base may beg to differ.
The downside of instinctive leadership
Thursday was not the first time that Trump’s determination to honor his populist, nationalist campaign rhetoric had sent shock waves around the globe. It helped drive his decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord and repeated efforts to sink the Iran nuclear deal brokered by President Barack Obama, both of which caused panic and consternation abroad.
The drama was also typical of the unpredictable, often unspecific style of leadership that appears often to skirt over the possible consequences of Trump’s tendency to trust his instincts.
There was not much sign, for instance, that the White House had gamed out the reactions of trading partners to the new tariffs and the risk of a trade war and damage to key alliances that they could provoke.
A trade war could well destabilize the global economy and have consequences for the President’s political fortunes if US stocks and growth take a hit from reprisals by foreign powers, in sectors other than steel and aluminum.
Molson Coors, for instance, warned that tariffs on aluminum could push up the cost of beer in cans and cause jobs to be lost.
“There will be retaliation, there will be a response and I think it is extremely unfortunate,” Carlos Gutierrez, who served as commerce secretary under President George W. Bush, said on CNN International. “This is most likely going to be a self-inflicted wound that will go on for a while.”
Playing several moves ahead has not been one of Trump’s strengths as President. Had he done so as he was staffing his administration, he might have concluded it was perhaps unwise to invite his family and their tangled business ties into the West Wing, a decision that has now landed him multiple ethical troubles.
US allies like Britain and Canada registered alarm at Trump’s trade move, balking especially at the White House’s rationale that their steel imports threatened US national security.
But foreign officials, just like those in Washington, struggled to work out exactly what Trump means to do.
“As a key NORAD and NATO ally, and as the number one customer of American steel, Canada would view any trade restrictions on Canadian steel and aluminum as absolutely unacceptable,” Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said, promising retaliation if Trump goes ahead.
Britain was mostly puzzled: CNN’s Jim Acosta reported that a UK government spokesman said, “We are engaging with the US on what this announcement means in practice.”
Those reactions mirrored the indignation and mystification painted on the faces of GOP senators who sat through the President’s freewheeling, contradictory session on gun reform at the White House on Wednesday.
The lack of detail and planning seems endemic to a presidency that revolves around impulsive tweets and off-the-cuff comments by a President who has said he likes to keep everyone off balance like a negotiator in a real estate deal.
A White House official, for instance, told CNN’s Dan Merica that a planned announcement on steps Trump will take to respond to the Florida school massacre was postponed while officials distill a coherent policy plan from the meeting.
CNN’s Jim Acosta contributed to this report.