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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a joint news conference with Latvia's President Raimonds Vejonis, Estonia's President Kersti Kaljulaid and Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria - HP1EE431G7VG0
Up Front

Why do Trump’s announced trade policies keep coming up empty?

Earlier this month, over the span of less than a week, President Donald Trump opened the door to joining the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement before promptly slamming it shut again. Many trade pundits and analysts were delighted when Trump announced he had directed his economic advisers to explore re-entering the TPP, only to have their hopes dashed again when the president tweeted out his repeated criticisms of the Asian trade deal. In the grand scheme, this brief flirtation with the TPP is unlikely to be remembered. But it does raise two broader questions: First, why do Trump’s big splashy trade announcements keep going nowhere? And second, why do the rest of us keep on falling for these empty pronouncements?

When news first broke that the U.S. was interested in rejoining the TPP, I was immediately skeptical. As I noted at the time, there is one fundamental rule for making sense of trade policy over Trump’s first 16 months in office: Do not overreact to new announcements. Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, we can observe a growing list of at-the-time seemingly newsworthy policy announcements that ultimately went nowhere. For instance, back in January 2017, Trump suggested that he would pay for a border wall by imposing tariffs on Mexico. That never happened. In an April 2017 interview, Trump suggested he was interested in a “reciprocal tax” on imports, meaning the U.S. should tax imports from other countries at the same rates as those applied to American exports. In February of this year, he resurrected the same idea, declaring that the United States would “soon” announce a reciprocal tax, with more information forthcoming “as soon as this week.” Meanwhile, we’re still waiting. In late January, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer suggested that “before very long” the administration would select an African country to begin new free trade agreement talks. The pro-trade U.S. Chamber of Commerce enthusiastically nodded its head. So far nothing seems to have happened.

To be fair, not all of Trump’s trade pronouncements go completely nowhere: Some of them do produce cosmetic policy changes while doing little to change facts on the ground. In April 2017, Trump told The Washington Post that he would either terminate or renegotiate the “horrible” U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), sparking a short-lived panic; in September a second flurry of news stories suggested he was seriously considering withdrawing from the deal. Ultimately, early this year the two sides struck a new deal: One that is virtually unchanged from the earlier KORUS that Trump thought was so horrible. Similarly, in what has been one of the biggest trade moves to date, Trump announced in March significant new tariffs on steel and aluminum. This legitimately would have been a substantial policy change, were it not for the fact that in the following weeks the administration announced that almost all major steel exporters to the U.S.—including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, South Korea, Canada, Mexico, and the European Union—would receive exemptions from the tariffs.

Why do these dramatic policy announcements keep falling flat? There are several possible explanations, not mutually exclusive. Perhaps the “deep state,” in the form of career officials working at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Commerce Department, are conspiring to thwart the Trump administration plans. Less sinisterly, this may simply be more evidence that achieving policy change is difficult. There is a lot of inertia built in to the Washington system, and it takes real, detail-oriented work to actually push any policy change through to fruition. The Trump administration is not putting in this hard work, and thus not seeing the results. Another explanation comes from the international level: In its policy implementation strategy the administration has failed to recognize that other countries have agency too, and are able to shape the ultimate outcomes of American trade policy. (For instance, while in an abstract sense the other TPP members would like to see the U.S. join the pact, there’s a long list of practical reasons why they aren’t keen to reopen negotiations with the Trump administration.) Finally, the simplest and perhaps most convincing explanation is that this is just Trump being Trump: He does not see any difference between campaign rally rhetoric and official presidential announcements, is not particularly concerned with the truthfulness of his claims, and is never willing to admit a mistake.

Whatever the reason, though, trade policy analysts and journalists need to catch up to this reality, and start dramatically discounting the importance of Trump trade policy announcements, on both the protectionism and the liberalization fronts. On April 13th, the day after word initially leaked that the U.S. was reconsidering the TPP, both The New York Times and The Washington Post ran front-page, above-the-fold A1 articles analyzing this supposedly important development in American politics. While it’s of course not out of the ordinary for reported news to then be overtaken by events, it should have been clear at the outset that this story did not merit such widespread coverage and significance.

This is the latest episode of journalism in the Trump era struggling to separate the meaningful inflection points and underlying trends from the swirl of gossip, inflammatory rhetoric, and chaos that Trump creates around himself. And just as “horse race” election coverage crowds out more substantive analysis, the tendency to chase after every Trump trade announcement as though it signifies a shift in policy has obstructed a deeper truth: Overall, if we look at policy as it is actually implemented, Trump’s trade policy simply isn’t that different from that of his predecessors.

Admittedly, there can also be risks to being too sanguine: Just because Trump hasn’t upended trade policy yet does not mean he won’t one day succeed. In particular, there are two big outstanding items on the trade agenda, namely the NAFTA renegotiation and new tariffs on China. Either one could still blow up. But I would advise that the bulk of the evidence suggests we should expect the opposite: The three NAFTA partners will agree to a new deal that modestly updates and reforms a 25-year old pact, while the U.S. and China will reach a negotiated deal that averts a trade war and leaves the fundamentals of their trading relationship mostly unchanged. (Don’t be fooled by Trump declaring such deals to be revolutionary, transformative successes, as he surely will.)

Crucially though, unless and until we’re given reason to believe otherwise, we need to stop taking Trump at his word when it comes to new trade policy announcements. We’ve been fooled more than twice at this point; it’s time to wise up.

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