While the Republican Party flounders on other matters, Donald Trump is engineering a sloppy retreat on the singular issue that made him president—his promise to create an aggressive “America first” trade policy. A nasty intramural fight has broken out among White House insiders over whether to back away from that fiercely popular commitment.
The policy contest pits Trump’s hard-core, right-wing nationalists and some allied elements of organized labor against the globalist financiers the president recruited from Wall Street for important cabinet positions.
Trump, it appears, is on both sides of the argument. As with so many other issues, we don’t know what he actually thinks about the matter or whether he thinks about it at all.
His closest advisers are elbowing one another to determine who owns this president—the working-class and middle-lass folks who voted for him, or the power hitters of big business and banking. Smart money says Wall Street will prevail, but, in this era of dizzy politics, who knows?
The intensity of the backroom debate is reflected in published snippets of personal insults. Breitbart, the “alt-right” journal formerly edited by Steve Bannon, now Trump’s senior political counselor, even took a swipe at the Trump White House.
“Baffling” and “shocking,” Breitbart declared, when Gary Cohn, who is director of Trump’s National Economic Council, hired the lead trade negotiator from the Obama administration’s failed efforts for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. That trade expert, Andrew Quinn, will become the “enemy within,” Breitbart warned.
The other side has responded with unattributed slurs of its own against economist Peter Navarro, whom Trump has made chair of the National Trade Council. He is described as a firebrand, ill prepared, isolated. Navarro is a fierce critic of free-trade orthodoxy and author of Death by China, a book that much impressed Donald Trump.
Politico, on the contrary, reported that former Goldman Sachs president Cohn “is putting in place a more conventional trade team that could act as a counterweight to…ardent economic nationalist Navarro.” The intended message: Don’t be alarmed by Trump’s crackpot talk. Goldman is on the scene. The establishment will prevail.
Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff at the AFL-CIO, tells the Financial Times, “At the moment, it appears that the Wall Street wing of the Trump administration is winning this battle and the Wall Street wing is in favor of the status quo in terms of US trade policy.”
Donald Trump himself created this collision of viewpoints. Right after his election, he made a showy drama of confronting certain US corporations and warning them not to move more jobs to Mexico or China. It was crowd-pleasing theater, and some companies graciously went along with small gestures.