Mar 22, 2018 - World

Trump's two-front war

Photo: Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images

President Trump is ending the week with a flop — nowhere close to the border wall funding he wanted in the DACA-less spending bill that congressional leaders released last evening. But he's fulfilling one of his most aggressive campaign promises with his anti-China trade action.

The big picture: Trump's expected announcement today of tariffs on Chinese imports is a big deal, and analysts fear it could provoke a trade war — and it comes as Trump has been battling his own party here at home over the government spending bill.

  • The gist: It’s the most substantive action Trump has taken to live up to his anti-China campaign message.
  • Why it matters: Trump forced his team to go big. Corporate America is nervous, wondering what the Chinese are going to do to retaliate. This could start a tit-for-tat trade battle between the world's two largest economies, with unknowable economic consequences. 
  • Behind the scenes: This is the first time Trump's team has crafted policy through a proper interagency process to match his most aggressive rhetoric. Trump’s team — which has been bitterly divided on trade — agreed on this action more than they have any other so far.
  • Both nationalists and globalists on Trump’s team agree China is a bad actor, and has got away with murder for decades under presidents of both parties. They agree China needs to be punished for stealing American intellectual property.

The disagreement has been over the size and scope of the tariffs. Trump’s team initially presented him with $30 billion per year in tariffs.

  • But in an Oval Office meeting last week, Trump turned to economic adviser Kevin Hassett and said: “Kevin, you’ve gotta make the number bigger,” according to sources with direct knowledge. The administration is now looking at tariffs in the $50 billion ballpark, on hundreds of Chinese products.

GOP at warwith itself ... The "DO NOT CONGRATULATE" leak about Putin was the most sensational and newsworthy over the last 24 hours. But the leak that most infuriated and perplexed senior Capitol Hill officials: HuffPost found out in real time — and other outlets quickly confirmed — that the president wasn't happy with the government spending bill:

  • The report said that Paul Ryan was headed to the White House "to sell the president on the GOP wins in the $1.3 trillion government funding bill and assure him that it’s a good deal for Republicans."
  • Trump tweeted: "Had to waste money on Dem giveaways in order to take care of military pay increase and new equipment."

Behind-the-scenes: Trump vented about the spending bill — particularly its lack of border wall funding — to a fewer than a dozen top officials on a conference call, and his concerns became public almost immediately.

  • It's also possible, of course, that the president made his own phone calls to lawmakers to vent after that conference call. 
  • Senior Republicans on the Hill said they were baffled about the purpose of the leak: It undercut their efforts, and the president ultimately agreed to sign the bill after Ryan hurried to the White House to persuade him.

The episode reflects Trump's distrust of his own party's congressional leaders:

  • One of Trump's greatest fears in life is getting played for a sucker.
  • His allies on the outside — including Fox News hosts like Lou Dobbs, and even his own son, Don Jr. — encourage his instincts that establishment Republicans in Washington are seeking to undermine him and his agenda.
  • Trump's wariness reflects some of that. But a senior administration official pointed out that he was just venting, as he always does. It's frustrating, from this official's perspective, that those concerns reached the press in real time, and apparently from Trump administration officials.

A senior GOP Senate aide called me to vent: "Everyone is over the leaks from this White House. Why is it that every emotional moment he has, has to be leaked, has to be a tick-tock, every second has to be transmitted to you guys in the press?"

  • The aide continued: "It is a disservice to the president when every single thing and every single thought gets leaked out ... I don't understand why people don't get that. It's not fair to the president, to his agenda, and to those who work hard every day to move the ball down the field." 
  • A senior GOP House aide added: "I guess you just operate under the assumption that everything is going to be leaked out in short order, and you just have to be aware of that when you go into meetings with the White House."
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