When President Trump displayed a large map of Hurricane Dorian’s path in the Oval Office on Wednesday, it was hard to miss a black line that appeared to have been drawn to extend the storm’s possible path into the state of Alabama.
That might have been intended to bolster Mr. Trump’s claim on Sunday when he tweeted that “in addition to Florida — South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.”
Never mind that the Alabama office of the National Weather Service quickly responded to Mr. Trump’s original claim by insisting that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian.”
“We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama,” the office tweeted. “The system will remain too far east.”
So did Mr. Trump — who frequently uses black Sharpie pens to sign legislation — add the mark to justify his unfounded claim about the dangers faced by residents of the Cotton State?
Or did someone else in his administration clumsily modify the map so that it would appear to back up the president?
The black line on the map was drawn to look like the top of the so-called cone of uncertainty that is familiar to weather watchers. The line curved through the southwest corner of Georgia and the southeast corner of Alabama, and into the Gulf of Mexico.
A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said that he was unclear what the black line on the map was referring to and that he needed to gather additional information. He later referred questions about the map to the White House.
Asked about the marking on the map, Mr. Trump told reporters that he did not know how it got there. “I don’t know,” he said on Wednesday while insisting that his assertion about the dangers that Alabama faced had been right all along.
“We had many models, each line being a model, and they were going directly through. And in all cases, Alabama was hit, if not lightly, then in some cases, pretty hard,” Mr. Trump said.
“They actually gave that a 95 percent chance probability,” he said. “It turned out that that was not what happened. It made the right turn up the coast. But Alabama was going to be hit very hard, along with Georgia. But under the current, they won’t be.”
The president did not say where he got that information, which is directly contradicted by days of reports from the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, neither of which publicly reported any threat to Alabama from the hurricane.
Governors in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia have declared emergencies as Dorian grew into a monster storm in the Atlantic. Alabama’s governor did not.
But Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, on Wednesday released an internal map that she said Mr. Trump was shown on Sunday as he traveled from Camp David back to the White House.
The map provided by the White House shows the impact of Dorian touching parts of Georgia and a small corner of Alabama, much like the black line that was drawn on the larger map Mr. Trump displayed in the Oval Office.
“I just know that Alabama was in the original forecast,” Mr. Trump said on Wednesday. “They thought it would get it as a piece of it.”
Later in the day, Mr. Trump tweeted a map from the South Florida Water Management District that he said supported his contention that Dorian heading for Alabama.
“This was the originally projected path of the Hurricane in its early stages,” he said. “As you can see, almost all models predicted it to go through Florida also hitting Georgia and Alabama. I accept the Fake News apologies!”
However, the map came with a warning that information from the National Hurricane Center and local emergency officials superseded it: “If anything on this graphic causes confusion, ignore the entire product.”39.9K people are talking about this
Mr. Trump also responded on Wednesday to reports that he had suggested to Vice President Mike Pence that he stay at one of Mr. Trump’s resorts while on an trip to meet with top officials in Ireland.
Mr. Pence’s decision to stay at the Trump International Golf Links & Hotel in Doonbeg drew criticism because it meant that the vice president was more than two hours away from Dublin, where his official meetings were being held.
Mr. Pence has family roots in Doonbeg, and Marc Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, told reporters on Tuesday that it was the president who suggested his hotel when he heard that Mr. Pence was traveling to Ireland.
“It’s like when we went through the trip, it’s like, ‘Well, he’s going to Doonbeg because that’s where the Pence family is from,’” Mr. Short said. “It’s like, ‘Well, you should stay at my place.’”
But on Wednesday, Mr. Trump denied that.
“I had no involvement, other than it’s a great place,” Mr. Trump said, adding: “I heard he was going there, but it wasn’t my idea for Mike to go there. Mike went there because his family’s there. That’s my understanding of it.”
Mr. Trump said he did not suggest that Mr. Pence stay at his property.
“I don’t suggest anything,” he insisted.
Protectionism is worse when it’s erratic and unpredictable.
The “very stable genius” in the Oval Office is, in fact, extremely unstable, in word and deed. That’s not a psychological diagnosis, although you can make that case too. It’s just a straightforward description of his behavior. And his instability is starting to have serious economic consequences.
To see what I mean about Trump’s behavior, just consider his moves on China trade over the past month, which have been so erratic that even those of us who follow this stuff professionally have been having a hard time keeping track.
First, Trump unexpectedly announced plans to greatly expand the range of Chinese goods subject to tariffs. Then he had his officials declare China a currency manipulator — which happens to be one of the few economic sins of which the Chinese are innocent. Then, perhaps fearing the political fallout from the higher prices of many consumer goods from China during the holiday season, which would result from the tariff hikes, he postponed — but didn’t cancel — them.
Wait, there’s more. China, predictably, responded to the new United States tariffs with new tariffs on U.S. imports. Trump, apparently enraged, declared that he would raise his tariffs even higher, and declared that he was ordering U.S. companies to wind down their business in China (which is not something he has the legal authority to do). But at the Group of 7 summit in Biarritz he suggested that he was having “second thoughts,” only to have the White House declare that he actually wished he had raised tariffs even more.
And we’re not quite done. On Monday Trump said that the Chinese had called to indicate a desire to resume trade talks. But there was no confirmation from the Chinese, and Trump has been a notably unreliable narrator of what’s going on in international meetings. For example, he made the highly improbable claim that “World Leaders” (his capitalization) were asking him, “Why does the American media hate your Country so much?”
To repeat, all of this has happened just this month. Now imagine yourself as a business leader trying to make decisions amid this Trumpian chaos.
The truth is that protectionism gets something of an excessively bad rap. Tariffs are taxes on consumers, and they tend to make the economy poorer and less efficient. But even high tariffs don’t necessarily hurt employment, as long they’re stable and predictable: the jobs lost in industries that either rely on imported inputs or depend on access to foreign markets can be offset by job gains in industries that compete with imports.
History is, in fact, full of examples of economies that combined high tariffs with more or less full employment: America in the 1920s, Britain in the 1950s and more.
But unstable, unpredictable trade policy is very different. If your business depends on a smoothly functioning global economy, Trump’s tantrums suggest that you should postpone your investment plans; after all, you may be about to lose access to your export markets, your supply chain or both. It’s also, though, not a good time to invest in import-competing businesses; for all you know, Trump will eventually back down on his threats. So everything gets put on hold — and the economy suffers.
One question you might ask is why Trumpian trade uncertainty is looming so much larger now than it did during the administration’s first two years. Part of the answer, I think, is that until fairly recently most analysts expected the U.S.-China trade conflict to be resolved with minimal disruption. You may recall that after denouncing Nafta as the worst trade deal ever made, Trump essentially surrendered and declared victory, settling for a new deal almost indistinguishable from the old one. Most economic newsletters I get predicted a similar outcome for the U.S. and China.
At the same time, the U.S. economy is slowing as the brief sugar high from the 2017 tax cut wears off. Another leader might engage in some self-reflection. Trump being Trump, he’s blaming others and lashing out. He has declared both Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and Xi Jinping, China’s leader, enemies. As it turns out, however, there’s nothing much he can do to bully the Fed, but the quirks of U.S. trade law do allow him to slap new tariffs on China.
Of course, Trump’s trade belligerence is itself contributing to the economic slowdown. So there’s an obvious possibility for a vicious circle. The economy weakens; a flailing Trump lashes out at China, and possibly others (Europe may be next); this further weakens the economy; and so on.
At that point you might expect an intervention from the grown-ups in the room — but there aren’t any. In any other administration Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a.k.a. the Lego Batman guy, would be considered a ridiculous figure; these days, however, he’s as close as we get to a voice of economic rationality. But whenever he tries to talk sense, as he apparently did over the issue of Chinese currency manipulation, he gets overruled.
Protectionism is bad; erratic protectionism, imposed by an unstable leader with an insecure ego, is worse. But that’s what we’ll have as long as Trump remains in office.