Following a long Easter weekend at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida, President Donald Trump returned to the White House on Sunday evening as news arrived that China was slapping new import duties on some U.S. goods, in retaliation for U.S. tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum, as agricultural groups worried about a wider trade war.
Meanwhile, new questions were being raised about the President’s EPA chief, as Scott Pruitt faced new calls for his ouster amid questions about a very inexpensive deal he received to stay in a Capitol Hill townhouse for $50/night while in Washington, D.C.
Here’s some of what the President might see this week:
1. Is this what the start of a trade war looks like? After President Trump levied new import tariffs on steel and aluminum coming from China and other nations, and then added in other punitive measures against Beijing over intellectual property, the Chinese government retaliated late Sunday, officially announcing tariffs on “128 items of imports from the U.S.” according to Chinese state media. A 25 percent tariff on U.S. pork products is effective right away, along with other agricultural items like fruits and nuts. Farm groups have been worried about getting caught in the middle of the President’s tough talk on trade. “We sell a lot of pork to China, so higher tariffs on our exports going there will harm our producers,” the head of the National Pork Producers Council said recently.
2. Trump vents more trade, immigration frustration at Mexico. In a series of tweets on Easter morning, the President took after Mexico again, accusing authorities of doing little to stem the tide of migration into the U.S. from Mexico and the rest of Central America, as the President once more threatened to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement among the U.S., Mexico and Canada. “They laugh at our dumb immigration laws,” Mr. Trump tweeted about Mexico. “They must stop the big drug and people flows, or I will stop their cash cow, NAFTA.” Just like with China, such talk worries U.S. farmers, who have developed extensive export markets under NAFTA. Negotiations continue among the three countries to reach a modified trade agreement.
3. Another Trump Cabinet member in the hot seat. While visiting with my mother-in-law on Easter Sunday, she had an appropriate query about the President: “So, how many people do you think are going to get fired this week?” Last week’s ouster of the Veterans Secretary wasn’t that surprising, but will there be more? EPA head Scott Pruitt is again under scrutiny, this time for staying in a Capitol Hill townhouse of an energy lobbyist, for $50 per night, which is pretty darn inexpensive for a decent place to stay in the nation’s capital. The arrangement – and some of the other controversies involving Pruitt – have some wondering about his staying power in the Trump Cabinet. The President has certainly made it clear that he won’t think twice about pushing people out. Watch for how strongly the White House defends Pruitt in public in coming days.
4. Trump to meet with new economic chief on Monday. As part of his recent staff shakeup, the President brought in a familiar economic face from business television, Larry Kudlow – Kudlow will have his first meeting with the President on Monday at the White House as the Trump Administration’s National Economic Council Director. With trade and tariffs in the news, one should remember that Kudlow does not exactly see eye to eye with the President on such issues. “Trump should also examine the historical record on tariffs, because they have almost never worked as intended and almost always deliver an unhappy ending,” Kudlow wrote for CNBC last month, saying that tariffs are really tax hikes for the consumer.
5. Trump infrastructure plan still in neutral. As I was sitting at a dead stop on Interstate 95 a number of times over the last 10 days driving the family up and down the East Coast, I had some time to think about Mr. Trump’s call for Congress to approve billions to help build new roads and bridges. What struck me was that from south of Richmond, Virginia to Savannah, Georgia, that interstate is almost the same as it was in the 1980’s. When it comes to gaining approval of billions for new roads, the Obama Administration tried to get the same thing done, but saw little movement in the Congress, mainly due to opposition from Republicans. The bottom line issue is nothing new – no matter which party is talking about building new infrastructure, who pays for it, and how it is funded remains the unsolved political riddle. If you know someone who is turning 25 years old, that’s the last time the federal gasoline tax was raised.