Sign up for a daily newsletter defining what matters in business and markets

Stories

Trump’s threat rollercoaster: He’s bluffing, until he’s not

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

When President Trump backed off his threats to hit Mexico with crippling tariffs earlier this week, there was a chorus of commentary that it was all so predictable — but his track record on such threats is anything but.

Between the lines: Trump does frequently back down from threats. But in other cases, he defies expectations by doubling down. Even threats that seem to expire — a national emergency on the border, blanket tariffs on China — can rear their heads once again.

On immigration:

  • Trump did move to end protections for Dreamers, leading to a legal battle and a court order that has kept them in effect.
  • After it seemed he'd elected not to declare a national emergency for wall funding, he went ahead and did it.
  • He hasn’t closed the border, ended birthright citizenship or moved illegal immigrants to sanctuary cities.

On trade:

  • Trump did withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Despite threats, he hasn’t pulled out of NAFTA, the KORUS trade deal with South Korea or the World Trade Organization.
  • He slapped steel and aluminum tariffs on close allies, but hasn’t followed through on auto tariff threats.
  • He’s pushed the trade war with China much farther than expected, carrying out threats to escalate tariffs and target telecom giant Huawei — despite reports along the way that he was ready to back down.

Military intervention:

International accords:

  • It looked for a time like Trump had reconsidered walking away from the Iran nuclear deal. Then he did it. He also started the process to leave the Paris climate accord, as promised.
  • NATO is still standing, and Trump hasn’t pulled troops out of South Korea or held the U.S. troop presence in Japan and Germany hostage for more money.
  • Trump did move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem despite repeated warnings about the risks of inflaming tensions, including from his own advisers.

Other threats:

  • He didn’t cut FEMA funding to California over “mismanagement” around forest fires.
  • He hasn’t attempted to change libel laws, or have NBC’s broadcast license revoked. But he has effectively ended the White House press briefing.

The bottom line: Trump often vows to do things no other president would consider, but he's followed through on enough of them that no threat can be immediately dismissed.