As a Democratic Senate aide for the past seven years, I had a front-row seat to an impressive show of obstruction. Republicans, under then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, decided they would oppose President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at every turn to limit their power. And it worked: They extorted concessions from Democrats with threats of
- fiscal cliffs and
- financial chaos.
I know firsthand that Democrats’ passion for responsible governance can be exploited by Republicans who are willing to blow past all norms and standards.
Now we have a president who exemplifies that willingness in the extreme. Partly, this explains why he faces more questions about his legitimacy than any president in recent history and why he drew three times as many protesters as inauguration attendees last weekend. But in something of a mismatch, Republicans’ unified control of government means that the most effective tool for popular resistance lies in the Senate — the elite, byzantine institution envisioned by the founders as the saucer that cools the teacup of popular opinion.
Senate Democrats have a powerful tool at their disposal, if they choose to use it, for resisting a president who has no mandate and cannot claim to embody the popular will. That tool lies in the simple but fitting act of withholding consent. An organized effort to do so on the Senate floor can bring the body to its knees and block or severely slow down the agenda of a president who does not represent the majority of Americans.
The procedure for withholding consent is straightforward, but deploying it is tricky. For the Senate to move in a timely fashion on any order of business, it must obtain unanimous support from its members. But if a single senator objects to a consent agreement, McConnell, now majority leader, will be forced to resort to time-consuming procedural steps through the cloture process, which takes four days to confirm nominees and seven days to advance any piece of legislation — and that’s without amendment votes, each of which can be subjected to a several-day cloture process as well.
McConnell can ask for consent at any time, and if no objection is heard, the Senate assumes that consent is granted. So the 48 senators in the Democratic caucus must work together — along with any Republicans who aren’t afraid of being targeted by an angry tweet — to ensure that there is always a senator on the floor to withhold consent.
Because every Senate action requires the unanimous consent of members from all parties, everything it does is a leverage point for Democrats. For instance, each of the 1,000-plus nominees requiring Senate confirmation — including President Trump’s Cabinet choices — can be delayed for four days each.
While the tactic works well, as we’ve seen for the past eight years, there remains the question of strategy. Should Democrats be pragmatic and let Trump have his nominees on a reasonable timetable, so as not to appear obstructionist? So far, this has been their approach to some of Trump’s Cabinet picks.
But it’s also fair to say that, by nominating a poorly qualified and ethically challenged Cabinet, Trump forfeited his right to a speedy confirmation process, and Democrats should therefore slow it down to facilitate the adequate vetting that Trump and Senate Republicans are determined to avoid by rushing the process before all the questionnaires and filings are submitted. Four days of scrutiny on the Senate floor per nominee, even after the committee hearings, is a reasonable standard for fulfilling the Senate’s constitutional responsibility of advice and consent.
Democrats can also withhold their consent from every piece of objectionable legislation McConnell tries to advance. With 48 senators in their caucus, they have the votes to block most bills. But even when Democrats don’t have the votes, they can force McConnell to spend time jumping through procedural hoops. This is the insight McConnell deployed against Reid to manufacture the appearance of gridlock, forcing him to use the cloture process more than 600 times.
Finally, Democrats can withhold their consent from Trump until they feel confident that foreign governments are not interfering in our elections. Credible reports hold that U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating whether Trump’s campaign cooperated with the Russian government on Vladimir Putin’s personally directed meddling. Withholding consent from Trump’s agenda until an independent, bipartisan probe provides answers is not just reasonable; it’s responsible. If Democrats withhold consent from everything the Senate does until such a process is established, they can stall Trump’s agenda and confirmation of his nominees indefinitely. Sen. Richard Durbin has been a leader in demanding an independent investigation. But unless Democrats back their calls with the threat of action, McConnell will steamroll them and never look back.
Of course, it would be unwise to deploy this strategy blindly. The kind of universal obstruction pioneered by McConnell during Obama’s presidency is not in Democrats’ nature: They believe in the smooth functioning of government.
But Democrats’ concern with delivering results for their constituents is also part of who we are and something we should embrace. Even for innately cautious Democrats, some issues demand dramatic action. If Trump wants to put their concerns about his legitimacy to rest, he can reach out with consensus nominees and policies, and come clean about his ties to Russia and his tax returns (which may show whether he has compromising financial debts to Russian interests). Until then, Democrats can stand up for America by withholding their consent.
WASHINGTON — President Trump’s tariffs were initially seen as a cudgel to force other countries to drop their trade barriers. But they increasingly look like a more permanent tool to shelter American industry, block imports and banish an undesirable trade deficit.
More than two years into the Trump administration, the United States has emerged as a nation with the highest tariff rate among developed countries, outranking Canada, Germany and France, as well as China, Russia and Turkey. And with further trade confrontations brewing, the rate may only increase from here.
On Tuesday, the president continued to praise his trade war with China, saying that the 25 percent tariffs he imposed on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods would benefit the United States, and that he was looking “very strongly” at imposing additional levies on nearly every Chinese import.
“I think it’s going to turn out extremely well. We’re in a very strong position,” Mr. Trump said in remarks from the White House lawn. “Our economy is fantastic; theirs is not so good. We’ve gone up trillions and trillions of dollars since the election; they’ve gone way down since my election.”
He called the trade dispute “a little squabble” and suggested he was in no rush to end his fight, though he held out the possibility an agreement could be reached, saying: “They want to make a deal. It could absolutely happen.” Stock markets rebounded on Tuesday, after plunging on Monday as China and the United States resumed their tariff war.
Additional tariffs could be on the way. Mr. Trump faces a Friday deadline to determine whether the United States will proceed with his threat to impose global auto tariffs, a move that has been criticized by car companies and foreign policymakers. And despite complaints by Republican lawmakers and American companies, Mr. Trump’s global metal tariffs remain in place on Canada, Mexico, Europe and other allies.
The trade barriers are putting the United States, previously a steadfast advocate of global free trade, in an unfamiliar position. The country now has the highest overall trade-weighted tariff rate at 4.2 percent, higher than any of the Group of 7 industrialized nations, according to Torsten Slok, the chief economist of Deutsche Bank Securities. That is now more than twice as high as the rate for Canada, Britain, Italy, Germany and France, and higher than most emerging markets, including Russia, Turkey and even China, Mr. Slok said.
The shift is having consequences for an American economy that is dependent on global trade, including multinational companies like Boeing, General Motors, Apple, Caterpillar and other businesses that source components from abroad and want access to growing markets overseas.
While trade accounts for a smaller percentage of the American economy than in most other countries — just 27 percent in 2017, compared with 38 percent for China and 87 percent for Germany, according to World Bank data — it is still a critical driver of jobs and economic growth.
Mr. Trump and his economic advisers say the administration’s trade policy is aiding the American economy, companies and consumers. And despite the tough approach, the administration continues to insist its goal is to strike trade agreements that give American businesses better trade terms overseas.
At a briefing last week, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, praised the president’s trade policies for helping economic growth thus far and said the administration supports “free and fair reciprocal trade.”
But if the goal really is freer trade, the administration has never been further from achieving that goal than it is today, said Chad Bown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“They’re heading in the opposite direction,” Mr. Bown said.
Beyond an update to the United States agreement with South Korea, no other free trade deals have been finalized. Mr. Trump’s revisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico still await passage in Congress, while trade talks with the European Union and Japan have been troubled from the start, with governments squabbling over the scope of the agreement.
Mr. Trump came into office fiercely critical of the failure of past administrations and global bodies like the World Trade Organization for failing to police China’s unfair trade practices. He withdrew the United States from multilateral efforts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multicountry trade deal negotiated by President Barack Obama, and the Paris climate accord.
That shift has created an opening for other countries to step forward as global leaders, including Europe, Japan and China, despite its position as one of the world’s most controversial economic actors. On Tuesday, China submitted its proposals for overhauling the World Trade Organization, including broadening the privileges of developing countries, a status that China claims for itself.
Advocates of free trade fear that governments in India, China, South Africa and elsewhere might find Mr. Trump’s model of protectionism appealing and erect even higher barriers to foreign companies.
While the United States and China could still strike a trade deal that would roll back many of their tariffs, that likelihood has appeared to diminish in recent weeks.
Progress toward a deal came to a sudden halt this month when China backtracked on certain commitments and Mr. Trump threatened to move ahead with higher tariffs.
“We had a deal that was very close, and then they broke it,” he said on Tuesday.
The two sides continue to disagree over whether the deal’s provisions must be enshrined in China’s laws. But they are also arguing over Mr. Trump’s tariffs, which were intended to prod the Chinese to agree to more favorable trade terms for the United States. China insists those tariffs must come off once a deal is reached, but the Trump administration wants some to remain in place, to ensure China abides by its commitments.
In an interview on Tuesday on CNBC, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, supported the administration’s tactics.
“Ideally, you wouldn’t have tariffs,” he said. But the United States already faces “all kinds of impediments” to gaining access to the Chinese marketplace, including tariffs, subsidization of industries and theft of intellectual property.
“We already have a series of hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese penalties against the United States which are threatening our long-term viability,” Mr. Rubio said.
Canada and Mexico have repeatedly pressed the administration to lift its tariffs on steel and aluminum now that negotiations over the Nafta revision are done. The three countries signed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement in November, but the pact awaits passage in all three legislatures.
The Trump administration still views the tariffs as a source of leverage in case it needs to demand final changes to the deal from Canada and Mexico. But Canadian and Mexican officials — as well as many in Congress — say the levies are actually an impediment because all three legislatures will refuse to finalize the deal while they are in place.
A similar standoff could soon unfold with the European Union, which Mr. Trump has accused of being a “brutal trading partner” and being “tougher than China.”
The president, who wants Europe to open its markets to American farmers and companies, has already imposed tariffs on European metals and is threatening to levy a 25 percent tax on imports of European cars and car parts if the bloc does not give the United States better trade terms.
Europe has absorbed Mr. Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs without too much damage. But car tariffs would strike the most important industry in Germany, which has the Continent’s biggest economy. European officials would regard car tariffs as a breach of a truce they worked out last year with Mr. Trump, and they have said they would refuse to negotiate as long as car tariffs were in place.
Cecilia Malmstrom, the European commissioner for trade, repeated on Monday that the European Union had prepared a list of American products worth $22.5 billion — including ketchup, suitcases and tractors — that would face immediate retaliatory tariffs.
“We’re prepared for the worst,” Ms. Malmstrom said in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper in Germany.
European officials still hold out hope that Mr. Trump will see them as allies and not geopolitical rivals like the Chinese. And he could ultimately delay the decision and extend the Friday deadline for countries that are in trade talks with the United States.
But the president shows no signs of backing away from his stance that tariffs have helped the United States.
On Tuesday morning, Mr. Trump posted on Twitter that tariffs had rebuilt America’s steel industry and were encouraging companies to leave China, making it “more competitive” for buyers in the United States.
“China buys MUCH less from us than we buy from them, by almost 500 Billion Dollars, so we are in a fantastic position,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “Make your product at home in the USA and there is no Tariff.”
WASHINGTON — In the middle of his crowded dinner in Buenos Aires with President Xi Jinping of China, President Trump leaned across the table, pointed to Robert Lighthizer, the United States trade representative whose skepticism of China runs deep, and declared, “That’s my negotiator!”
He then turned to Peter Navarro, his even more hawkish trade adviser, adding, “And that’s my tough guy!” according to aides with knowledge of the exchange.
Now, with talks between China and the United States set to begin this week in Beijing, Mr. Lighthizer, aided by Mr. Navarro, faces the assignment of a lifetime: redefining the trade relationship between the world’s two largest economies by Mr. Trump’s March 2 deadline to reach an agreement.
And he must do it in a way that tilts the balance of power toward the United States. His approach will have significant ramifications for American companies, workers and consumers whose fortunes, whether Mr. Trump likes it or not, are increasingly tied to China.
First, however, Mr. Lighthizer will need to keep a mercurial president from wavering in the face of queasy financial markets, which have suffered their steepest annual decline since 2008. Despite his declaration that trade wars are “easy to win” and his recent boast that he is a “Tariff Man,” Mr. Trump is increasingly eager to reach a deal that will help calm the markets, which he views as a political electrocardiogram of his presidency.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly told his advisers that Mr. Xi is someone with whom he can cut a big deal, according to people who have spoken with the president. On Saturday, Mr. Trump called Mr. Xi to discuss the status of talks, tweeting afterward that good progress was being made. “Deal is moving along very well,” Mr. Trump said.
The administration has tried to force China to change its ways with stiff tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese products, restrictions on Chinese investment in the United States and threats of additional levies on another $267 billion worth of goods. China has responded with its own tit-for-tat tariffs on American goods. But over a steak dinner during the Group of 20 summit meeting in Argentina, Mr. Xi and Mr. Trump agreed to a 90-day truce and to work toward an agreement that Mr. Trump said could lead to “one of the largest deals ever made.”
Mr. Lighthizer — whose top deputy will meet with Chinese officials this week ahead of more high-level talks in February — has played down any differences with Mr. Trump and views his role as ultimately executing the directive of his boss. But the trade representative, who declined to be interviewed, has told friends and associates that he is intent on preventing the president from being talked into accepting “empty promises” like temporary increases in soybean or beef purchases.
Mr. Lighthizer, 71, is pushing for substantive changes, such as forcing China to end its practice of requiring American companies to hand over valuable technology as a condition of doing business there. But after 40 years of dealing with China and watching it dangle promises that do not materialize, Mr. Lighthizer remains deeply skeptical of Beijing and has warned Mr. Trump that the United States may need to exert more pressure through additional tariffs in order to win true concessions.
When Mr. Lighthizer senses that anyone — even Mr. Trump — might be going a little soft on China, he opens a paper-clipped manila folder he totes around and brandishes a single-page, easy-reading chart that lists decades of failed trade negotiations with Beijing, according to administration officials.
“Bob’s attitude toward China is very simple. He wants them to surrender,” said William A. Reinsch, a former federal trade official who met him three decades ago when Mr. Lighthizer was a young aide for former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. “His negotiating strategy is simple too. He basically gives them a list of things he wants them to do and says, ‘Fix it now.’”
Mr. Trump’s selection of Mr. Lighthizer last month to lead the talks initially spooked markets, which viewed the China skeptic’s appointment as an ominous sign. It also annoyed Chinese officials, who had been talking with the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, a more moderate voice on trade and the primary point of contact for Liu He, China’s top trade negotiator. Mr. Mnuchin has urged the president to avoid a protracted trade war, even if that entails reaching an interim agreement that leaves some issues unresolved.
Mr. Mnuchin, who attended the G-20 dinner, helped Mr. Trump craft an upbeat assessment declaring the Buenos Aires meeting “highly successful” in the presidential limousine back to the airport, according to a senior administration official.
The disparate views among Mr. Trump’s top trade advisers have prompted sparring — both publicly and behind the scenes.
During an Oval Office meeting with the trade team the fall of 2017, Mr. Lighthizer accused Mr. Mnuchin and Gary D. Cohn, the former National Economic Council director, of bad-mouthing him to free-trade Republican senators.
The argument grew so heated that the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, quickly pulled the combatants into the nearby Roosevelt Room and away from the president, where the argument raged on for a few more minutes, according to two witnesses.
Emily Davis, a spokeswoman for the United States trade representative, disputed the account.
Mr. Lighthizer has since worked to increase his own face time with Mr. Trump. He has joked to colleagues that he has more influence with Mr. Trump during winter months because he is able to hitch a ride on Air Force One during the president’s flights down to Mar-a-Lago, which is several miles from Mr. Lighthizer’s own $2.3 million waterfront condo in Palm Beach, Fla.
He used that access to argue to Mr. Trump that the United States has never had more leverage to extract structural reforms on intellectual property, forced transfer of technology from American companies and cybercrime. But while Mr. Trump has jumped at the chance to claim victory in changing China’s ways, experts say that what Mr. Lighthizer is demanding would require significant shifts in how Beijing’s central government and its manufacturing sector coordinate their activities, and that might simply not be possible in the short term.
“Good luck with that,” Mr. Scissors said.
Those who know Mr. Lighthizer say he will try to force concessions through a combination of pressure tactics, like tariffs, and public condemnation. Mr. Lighthizer — who described his own negotiating style as “knowing where the leverage is” during a 1984 interview — typically presents few specific demands during initial talks while publicly bashing efforts by the other side.
He used that approach during recent talks with Canada and Mexico to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement, criticizing foreign counterparts as intransigent and characterizing complaints by American businesses as pure greed.
Mr. Lighthizer’s unsparing view of China comes, in part, from his childhood in Ashtabula, Ohio, an industrial and shipping town on the Great Lakes hit by the offshoring of steel and chemical production. For much of his career, Mr. Lighthizer was a lonely protectionist voice in a Republican Party dominated by free traders, alternating between jobs in government and a lucrative private law career representing large American corporations like United States Steel in trade cases against China.
Mr. Lighthizer found his way into Mr. Trump’s orbit through his work in the steel industry, where he gained prominence by filing lawsuits accusing Japan and China of dumping metals into the United States, in violation of trade laws. In 2011, Mr. Lighthizer caught Mr. Trump’s eye with an opinion piece in The Washington Times, in which he defended Mr. Trump’s approach to China as consistent with conservative ideology and compared the future president to Republican icons like Ronald Reagan.
Taciturn in public and self-deprecating in private, Mr. Lighthizer sees himself as a serious player on the world stage: Two recent guests to Mr. Lighthizer’s Georgetown townhouse were greeted by the stern visage of their host staring down at them from an oil portrait on the wall.
The trade adviser is guarded around Mr. Trump, often waiting until the end of meetings to make his points and quietly nudging the president away from actions he views as counterproductive, current and former officials said. That was the case in mid-2017 when he cautioned the president against withdrawing unilaterally from the World Trade Organization, adding for emphasis, “And I hate the W.T.O. as much as anybody.”
He does not always get his way. In the wake of a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada this fall, Mr. Lighthizer urged Mr. Trump to consider easing steel and aluminum tariffs on those countries and replacing them with less burdensome quotas. Mr. Trump rejected his plan, according to negotiators from all three countries.
A poker-faced Mr. Lighthizer broke the news to his Mexican and Canadian counterparts by declaring the proposal was inoperative, one of the officials said.
The president also ignored Mr. Lighthizer’s advice in early December when he announced that he intended to begin the six-month process of withdrawing the United States from Nafta in order to pressure House Democrats into passing the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
That threat undermined months of quiet negotiations between Mr. Lighthizer, labor groups and Democrats like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California to try to win their support for the new trade deal. Mr. Trump has yet to follow through on his threat, and Mr. Lighthizer continues trying to work with Democrats to get the new trade deal approved.
“Bob is trying to provide stability and focus in a completely chaotic environment,” Mr. Brown said. “I can’t speak for Bob, but I am certain he is frustrated. How could you not be frustrated as the U.S. trade representative for a president who knows what his gut thinks but hasn’t put much of his brains into trade?”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in an appearance on NBC’ News’s “Meet the Press” that Thursday’s guilty plea by Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, raises the question of whether Russia continues to have leverage over Trump.
.. “Does the Kremlin have a hold on him over other things?” Nadler said. “There certainly was leverage during the campaign period and until recently because they knew he was lying, they knew he had major business dealings or that Cohen on his behalf had major business dealings.”
.. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said Sunday that “most Republicans who were about to nominate Donald Trump in the summer of ’16 would probably have thought it was a relevant fact” that Trump was still trying to do business with Russia at the time.
.. “What I find particularly interesting with the revelation of Cohen’s plea is that he’s saying he lied to protect then-candidate Trump’s stories that he had nothing to do with Russia,”
.. “So, the president seemed to already be changing his story a little bit and say, ‘well, it was all legal.’ ”