Trump is abus­ing his tariff power, too

Antelope Valley Press - - OPINION - Paul Krug­man

So here’s the story: Don­ald Trump has abused the pow­ers of his of­fice to threaten a U.S. ally. His threat is prob­a­bly il­le­gal; his re­fusal to pro­duce doc­u­ments about his de­ci­sion process is def­i­nitely il­le­gal. And his claims about the mo­ti­va­tion for his ac­tions don’t pass the laugh test.

You prob­a­bly think that I’m talk­ing about Trump’s at­tempt to pres­sure Ukraine into pro­duc­ing po­lit­i­cal dirt on Joe Bi­den by with­hold­ing aid, and the sub­se­quent cover-up — you know, the stuff for which he has been im­peached (and that half the coun­try be­lieves should lead to his re­moval from of­fice). But there’s an­other, some­what sim­i­lar story: his re­peated threats to im­pose pro­hib­i­tive tar­iffs on im­ports of au­to­mo­biles from Europe.

Granted, the auto tariff story isn’t as vile as the Ukraine story, and it poses less of a di­rect threat to a fair elec­tion. But it’s rec­og­niz­ably part of the same syn­drome: abuse of pres­i­den­tial power, con­tempt for the rule of law and dis­hon­esty about mo­ti­va­tions.

Some back­ground: U.S. tar­iffs — taxes on im­ports — are nor­mally set the same way we set other taxes, through leg­is­la­tion that must pass Con­gress and then be signed by the pres­i­dent. The law does, how­ever, give the pres­i­dent dis­cre­tion to im­pose tem­po­rary tar­iffs un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances, for ex­am­ple to give U.S. in­dus­tries breath­ing space in the face of sud­den im­port surges, to counter for­eign ex­port sub­si­dies or to pro­tect na­tional se­cu­rity (Sec­tion 232).

Un­til Trump, Sec­tion 232 cases were rare. He has, how­ever, used the na­tional se­cu­rity jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for tar­iffs with aban­don and zero re­gard for plau­si­bil­ity. Cana­dian alu­minum poses a na­tional se­cu­rity risk? Re­ally?

And so it was that in 2018 the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced that it was be­gin­ning a Sec­tion 232 in­ves­ti­ga­tion of auto im­ports, es­pe­cially from Europe and Ja­pan. Ev­ery trade ex­pert I know con­sid­ered the no­tion that Ger­man or Ja­panese cars con­sti­tute a threat to na­tional se­cu­rity ab­surd. None­the­less, in 2019 a re­port from the Com­merce Depart­ment con­cluded that auto im­ports do, in­deed, en­dan­ger na­tional se­cu­rity.

What was the ba­sis for this con­clu­sion? Well, we don’t ac­tu­ally know — be­cause the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­fused to re­lease the re­port.

This stonewalli­ng is clearly il­le­gal. The statute re­quires that all por­tions of the Com­merce re­port that don’t con­tain clas­si­fied or pro­pri­etary in­for­ma­tion be pub­lished in the Fed­eral Reg­is­ter, and it’s hard to be­lieve that any of the re­port con­tains such in­for­ma­tion, let alone the whole thing. Fur­ther­more, Con­gress in­serted a pro­vi­sion in a spend­ing bill last month specif­i­cally re­quir­ing that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion turn over the re­port.

Why won’t Trump obey the law and hand over the doc­u­ment? My guess is that his peo­ple are afraid to let any­one see the Com­merce re­port be­cause it’s em­bar­rass­ingly thin and in­com­pe­tent. To be hon­est, I have some doubts about whether the re­port even ex­ists. Re­mem­ber, the Com­merce Depart­ment is run by Wil­bur Ross, whom read­ers of my col­league Gail Collins voted Trump’s worst Cabi­net mem­ber, which is quite a dis­tinc­tion given the com­pe­ti­tion.

Be­yond all that, why does Trump even want to im­pose tar­iffs on Euro­pean cars? Ob­vi­ously it has noth­ing to do with na­tional se­cu­rity. But what’s it re­ally about?

Part of the an­swer may be that the self-pro­claimed Tariff Man still be­lieves that pro­tec­tion­ism will re­vive U.S. man­u­fac­tur­ing, even though the ev­i­dence says that his trade war had the op­po­site ef­fect.

Be­yond that, it ap­pears that Trump tried to use the threat of auto tar­iffs to blud­geon Euro­pean na­tions into back­ing him up in his con­fronta­tion with Iran. This is, by the way, a clear vi­o­la­tion both of U.S. law, which does — not — give the pres­i­dent dis­cre­tion to im­pose tar­iffs for rea­sons un­re­lated to eco­nomics, and of our in­ter­na­tional agree­ments, which pro­hibit this kind of bul­ly­ing.

And re­mem­ber, the na­tions Trump was try­ing to bully are or were among our most im­por­tant al­lies, part of the coali­tion of democ­ra­cies we used to call the Free World. These days, our erst­while al­lies can no longer con­sider Amer­ica a re­li­able part­ner, on trade or any­thing else. Of course, that prob­a­bly doesn’t bother Trump, who prefers au­to­crats like Vladimir Putin and Mo­hammed bin Sal­man.

So how should we think about the auto tariff saga? At one level it’s part of the broader story of Trump’s trade war, which has raised prices for Amer­i­can con­sumers, hurt U.S. busi­nesses and farm­ers and deterred busi­ness in­vest­ment by cre­at­ing uncer­tainty.

But these eco­nomic con­sid­er­a­tions are, I’d ar­gue, much less im­por­tant than the po­lit­i­cal as­pects.

Trump’s scofflaw be­hav­ior with re­gard to auto tar­iffs is part of a broader pat­tern of abuse of power and con­tempt for the rule of law. On ev­ery front, Trump treats U.S. pol­icy as a tool he can de­ploy as he chooses, in his own in­ter­ests, with­out seek­ing con­gres­sional ap­proval or even in­form­ing Con­gress about what he’s do­ing or why.

Ba­si­cally, the man in the White House op­er­ates on the prin­ci­ple that l’état, c’est Trump. It’s a prin­ci­ple no­body who be­lieves in Amer­i­can ideals should ac­cept.

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