With tariffs, Trump reopens GOP split that had healed with tax reform

President Trump.
Evan Vucci/Associated Press
President Trump.

Republican Party unity under President Trump lasted about two months.

Chalk the latest split up to tariffs.

For the first year after Donald Trump’s election, the GOP split that emerged during the campaign festered. Though Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House, they got precious little done.


Trump frequently took to Twitter to whack his fellow Republicans.

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He attacked Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell on the debt ceiling. He went after Maine Senator Susan Collins on health care. He called Jeff Flake’s career “toast.” He seemed to threaten the economy of Alaska, Lisa Murkowski’s home state. He blamed the House Freedom Caucus for sinking an Obamacare repeal and later suggested he might support a primary challenge to House Speaker Paul Ryan.

But it appeared that the Republicans finally found their groove when it came to backing a tax reform bill. Republican leaders and the White House suddenly didn’t want to talk about the squabbles of the past. They wanted to focus on how well they were working together on tax cuts, and what that would mean for the economy and the future.

Tax reform became law in the closing days of 2017, and by the time Trump’s State of the Union address rolled around, the only Republicans sniping at the president were outliers like Flake or Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Then came last week and Trump’s announcement of his intention to impose stiff new tariffs on steel and aluminum. Since then, three things have happened:


1. The stock market has reacted poorly.

2. Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, quit.

3. The Republican Party is split again.

Regarding the third point, just consider the language coming from Republican leaders McConnell and Ryan. Both have said they are very “worried” about talk of tariffs and the potential for a trade war. Both have run campaigns as free-trade Republicans. Ryan has warned of the “unintended consequences” that Trump’s broad proposals — a 25 percent tariff on steel and 10 percent on aluminum — might have. McConnell reiterated this week that he believes free trade has helped his home state of Kentucky.

Ironically, Trump pushed his tariff proposal with the hope of helping the Republican Party. Axios, among other media outlets, suggests Trump believes imposing tariffs will help a Republican win a special election for Congress next week in suburban Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania is, historically, steel country.


However, it should be noted that the state’s Republican US Senator Pat Toomey said in a radio interview Wednesday morning that he doesn’t agree with Trump’s political calculation in his home state — nor on the protectionist policy.

“Tariffs are a big mistake,” said Toomey, also a free-trade proponent. “I think the policy is very, very counterproductive.”

Where this goes from here is unclear.

Trump was on the verge of losing support from his own party and his base with (apparently fleeting) statements he made on both immigration and gun control in recent weeks. In both cases, he backtracked before opposition mounted.

In this case, Trump seems dead set on implementing some form of tariff, though it might indeed be more surgical than the president previously stated.

If he does something limited, such as exempting big trade partners like Canada and Mexico, he might never force Congress to take a vote on broad tariffs or openly defy his wishes. However, even if these limited moves do set off a trade war, it is possible that the Republican Party could be fractured just in time for the midterm elections.

Then it will be every candidate for himself.

James Pindell can be reached at