NBC just came out with the story you knew was coming: a detailed accounting of how President Trump launched a trade war Thursday. It happened about as you might have expected, with a healthy mix of anger, improvisation and a decided lack of preparation.
The story is shocking, and it confirms basically everything we thought we knew about Trump. Nothing in it is out of character for him, but it does suggest that his tendency to fly off the handle is pretty boundless. It leads to the unmistakable question: If Trump would do this with a trade war, would he also do it with an actual war? That question is not so speculative anymore. Questions about what Trump’s temperament could portend in times of crisis are becoming increasingly real.
Here is the crux of the report from Stephanie Ruhle and Peter Alexander:
Trump’s policy maneuver … was announced without any internal review by government lawyers or his own staff, according to a review of an internal White House document.
According to two officials, Trump’s decision to launch a potential trade war was born out of anger at other simmering issues and the result of a broken internal process that has failed to deliver him consensus views that represent the best advice of his team.
On Wednesday evening, the president became “unglued,” in the words of one official familiar with the president’s state of mind.
A trifecta of events had set him off in a way that two officials said they had not seen before: Hope Hicks’s testimony to lawmakers investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, conduct by his embattled attorney general and the treatment of his son-in-law by his chief of staff.
Trump, the two officials said, was angry and gunning for a fight, and he chose a trade war, spurred on by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, the White House director for trade.
Trump announced a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports Thursday, after a meeting with industry executives. He did not do so until the end of the meeting — and not until a reporter asked for the figures, which suggested even at the time it may not have been ready for public consumption. Since then, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said those numbers represent Trump’s “intent” and that you should “never say never” when asked whether they are finalized.
Ruhle and Alexander report that the White House had not even vetted the steel and aluminum executives who were at the meeting. They say there was no position paper on the policy changes as of midnight Wednesday. Key Cabinet departments such as State, Defense and Treasury had not been given a heads-up. The White House Counsel’s Office had not even completed a legal review of whether the steel tariff would pass muster.
In other words, it sounds a whole lot like Trump got way ahead of things. And that should not be surprising, given he has done the same time with banning transgender soldiers, his entry ban and declaring the opioid crisis a national emergency.
None of those ultimately wound up surviving in their original forms, and it became clear over time Trump was setting policy somewhat by the seat of his pants, despite the seriousness and nuance of the matters at hand. His decision to pull the same maneuver with a trade war — something that could have serious consequences for the country’s economy and its relationships across the world — suggests nothing is truly sacred and immune when it comes to the whims of this president.
That is a prospect a lot of people — a strong majority of the country, in fact, including many Trump supporters — found quite unsettling in 2016.