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Trump’s slapdash tariffs risk trade war

Donald Trump signs a proclamation on steel and aluminum imports in the White House on Thursday. AFP/Getty Images

Tariffs affecting billions of dollars in international trade, the price of consumer goods, and the health of your 401(k) shouldn’t be imposed without utmost consideration and caution. But even by the standards of the Trump administration, the White House acted with extreme recklessness Thursday as it raced to impose new trade policies with potentially major consequences, rushing to finish them like a college student pulling an all-nighter.

In a topsy-turvy day, the White House scheduled a meeting with steel and aluminum workers to unveil the new tariff, then backtracked, then let it be known the administration was considering a signing ceremony for a symbolic memo while the actual details were still being hashed out. Not minor details, though: The White House was tweaking the policy to exempt some allies, like Australia. Congress, and foreign allies, were left to scratch their heads throughout the day. One American ally, asked what it had heard from the administration about the tariffs, responded: “Nothing.”


This is no way to govern. Policies with such far-reaching implications should at least have dry ink.

In rare cases, tariffs — essentially, taxes on imported goods — are sometimes warranted. But they’re a blunt weapon, and can trigger destructive trade wars when the targeted countries retaliate by slapping tariffs on American goods. That’s the backlash that Trump is inviting: Amid the White House chaos this week, the European Union and China were both drawing up lists of American goods for retaliatory tariffs.

The president’s support for tariffs seems to stem from a gut-level belief that trade deficits are evidence that America has been treated “unfairly” in international trade. That notion is disputed by most credible economists. And it ignores the significant downsides of tariffs, which lead to higher prices of imported goods for consumers and can disrupt entire industries. Installers of solar panels, for instance, are reeling from the tariff Trump imposed on Chinese solar panels earlier this year.


For Republicans, many of them supporters of free trade, the president’s sudden hunger for a protectionist trade war has provoked widespread anxiety. About 100 GOP lawmakers sent him a letter urging him to reconsider imposing the tariffs. The policy also cost the president his economic adviser, Gary D. Cohn, who quit amid disagreements over trade.

So far, though, Republicans have shown no inclination to turn their deep concerns into action. But without some real pushback from Congress, lawmakers are just giving the president a green light to keep making major decisions on the basis of his prejudices and whims — one half-baked idea after the next.