Two weeks ago, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, declared that the trade war with China was “on hold” and that the United States would temporarily holster its tariffs. The reassuring comments calmed markets and raised hopes that Mr. Mnuchin, one of President Trump’s most enduring and trusted advisers, was winning the internal trade battle that has gripped the White House.
Then Mr. Trump weighed in. In a one-two punch last week, the president doubled down on the trade war with China and threw in ones with Canada, Mexico and Europe for good measure.
.. The scolding laid bare the uncomfortably familiar spot that Mr. Mnuchin finds himself in: trying to be a voice of moderation and a statesman in an administration that sees diplomatic norms and protocols as signs of weakness.
He has so far managed to stay in Mr. Trump’s good graces while advocating a more free-trade approach, but that balancing act is showing signs of strain.
.. Mr. Mnuchin, unflappable in public, is privately making his case with a president
.. The internal tensions boiled over in May during a trade mission Mr. Mnuchin led to China, when he dressed down Peter Navarro, Mr. Trump’s hawkish trade adviser, by reminding him where he stood in the administration’s pecking order after Mr. Navarro confronted him about being sidelined from the talks.
.. Current and former White House and Treasury officials say Mr. Mnuchin has managed to thrive by employing a mix of assertiveness and obsequiousness, staking out his position to the president but quickly changing course to carry out Mr. Trump’s marching orders, even if his message did not win the day.
.. Mr. Trump tweeted that he was going to find a way to help put back in business a Chinese telecommunications company that had been punished for violating American sanctions on Iran and North Korea. The decision blindsided administration officials and lawmakers
.. Mr. Mnuchin, along with the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, was dispatched to Capitol Hill to try to calm angry Republican lawmakers and explain the rationale behind allowing the company, ZTE, to remain in business.
.. those close to the secretary say he has learned to appreciate Mr. Trump’s use of the threat of tariffs as a negotiating tool.
.. focused on the president’s desire to see the bilateral trade deficit reduced, rather than emphasizing some of the other trade barriers
.. Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former top strategist, has said that Mr. Mnuchin is in over his head in the negotiations and that he is letting Mr. Trump’s leverage slip away by failing to force China to make major changes to its industrial policy.
.. it was apparent that the Chinese government was trying to elevate Mr. Mnuchin’s role in the negotiations because they see him as the American official most likely to cut a deal.
.. “Among the possible choices, they see Mnuchin as being less hawkish than some of the other counterparts,”
.. populist voices outside the administration have already been heckling Mr. Mnuchin as inept amid reports that the United States was on the verge of making an agreement with China that was viewed as merely symbolic.
.. Mr. Mnuchin has at times found himself the subject of derision, characterized as a fawning banker who cannot tell the president “no.”
.. Last year, the Treasury secretary was scoffed at by economic policymakers from across the political spectrum for insisting that the $1.5 trillion Trump tax cuts would pay for themselves.
.. Mr. Mnuchin told members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus to “vote for the debt ceiling for me.” His plea was met with groans and hisses.
.. Last August, fellow alumni of Yale, where Mr. Mnuchin earned a bachelor’s degree, called on the secretary to resign when he defended Mr. Trump’s handling of racially inspired violence in Charlottesville, Va. A month later, Lawrence Summers, a Clinton administration Treasury secretary, called Mr. Mnuchin the “greatest sycophant in cabinet history” for supporting Mr. Trump’s criticism of football players who knelt during the national anthem.
.. points to his role in successfully steering the Republican tax cut package, which many said would never pass, through Congress.
.. Within the Treasury Department, Mr. Mnuchin has developed a reputation as a micromanager. He resisted choosing a full-time deputy for more than a year, preferring to oversee everything from carrying out the new tax law to overseeing financial sanctions.
.. When the Internal Revenue Service systems failed on Tax Day, the response to the crash was slowed because Mr. Mnuchin was in New Hampshire
.. He had required that any big decisions be cleared by him
.. Mr. Mnuchin’s closest aides describe him as a collegial and mentoring figure.
.. Despite his earnest persona on television, he is known to possess a wry sense of humor
Remember “The Manchurian Candidate”? The 1959 novel, made into a classic 1962 film (never mind the remake), involved a plot to install a Communist agent as president of the United States. One major irony was that the politician in question was modeled on Senator Joe McCarthy — that is, he posed as a superpatriot even while planning to betray America.
.. If the U.S. or any other major player began promiscuously using dubious national security arguments to abrogate trade agreements, everyone else would follow suit, and the whole trading system would fall apart.
.. But Trump is different. He has already imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum in the name of national security, and he is now threatening to do the same for autos.
.. The idea that imported cars pose a national security threat is absurd. We’re not about to refight World War II, converting auto plants over to the production of Sherman tanks. And almost all the cars we import come from U.S. allies. Clearly, Trump’s invocation of national security is a pretext
.. the proposed auto tariffs would further undermine our allies’ rapidly eroding faith in U.S. trustworthiness.
.. Which is not to say that national security should never be a consideration in international trade. On the contrary, there’s a very clear-cut case right now: the Chinese company ZTE, which makes cheap phones and other electronic goods.
.. Yet Trump is pulling out all the stops in an effort to reverse actions against ZTE, in defiance of lawmakers from both parties.
.. China approved a huge loan to a Trump-related project in Indonesia just before rushing to ZTE’s defense; at the same time, China granted valuable trademarks to Ivanka Trump. And don’t say that it’s ridiculous to suggest that Trump can be bribed; everything we know about him says that yes, he can.
.. what we’re getting is Manchurian trade policy: a president using obviously fake national security arguments to hurt democratic allies, while ignoring very real national security concerns to help a hostile dictatorship.
American executives are betting that the president is good for business. Not in the long run
MOST American elites believe that the Trump presidency is hurting their country. Foreign-policy mandarins are terrified that security alliances are being wrecked. Fiscal experts warn that borrowing is spiralling out of control. Scientists deplore the rejection of climate change. And some legal experts warn of a looming constitutional crisis.
.. Bosses reckon that the value of tax cuts, deregulation and potential trade concessions from China outweighs the hazy costs of weaker institutions and trade wars.
.. the investment surge is unlike any before—it is skewed towards tech giants, not firms with factories. When it comes to gauging the full costs of Mr Trump, America Inc is being short-sighted and sloppy.
.. The benefits for business of Mr Trump are clear, then: less tax and red tape, potential trade gains and a 6-8% uplift in earnings.
.. During the Obama years corporate America was convinced it was under siege when in fact, judged by the numbers, it was in a golden era, with average profits 31% above long-term levels.
Now bosses think they have entered a nirvana, when the reality is that the country’s system of commerce is lurching away from rules, openness and multilateral treaties towards arbitrariness, insularity and transient deals.
.. so far this month 200-odd listed American firms have discussed the financial impact of tariffs on their calls with investors. Over time, a mesh of distortions will build up.
.. American firms have $8trn of capital sunk abroad; foreign firms have $7trn in America; and there have been 15,000 inbound deals since 2008. The cost involved in monitoring all this activity could ultimately be vast. As America eschews global co-operation, its firms will also face more duplicative regulation abroad. Europe has already introduced new regimes this year for financial instruments and data.
.. The expense of re-regulating trade could even exceed the benefits of deregulation at home. That might be tolerable, were it not for the other big cost of the Trump era: unpredictability. At home the corporate-tax cuts will partly expire after 2022.
.. Bosses hope that the belligerence on trade is a ploy borrowed from “The Apprentice”, and that stable agreements will emerge. But imagine that America stitches up a deal with China and the bilateral trade deficit then fails to shrink, or Chinese firms cease buying American high-tech components as they become self-sufficient
.. Another reason for the growing unpredictability is Mr Trump’s urge to show off his power with acts of pure political discretion.
- He has just asked the postal service to raise delivery prices for Amazon, his bête noire and the world’s second-most valuable listed firm.
- He could easily strike out in anger at other Silicon Valley firms—after all, they increasingly control the flow of political information.
- He wants the fate of ZTE, a Chinese telecoms firm banned in America for sanctions violations, to turn on his personal whim.
.. When policy becomes a rolling negotiation, lobbying explodes. The less predictable business environment that results will raise the cost of capital.
.. Mr Trump expects wages to rise, but 85% of firms in the S&P 500 are forecast to expand margins by 2019
.. Either shareholders, or workers and Mr Trump, are going to be disappointed.
.. In a downturn, American business may find that its fabled flexibility has been compromised because the politics of firing workers and slashing costs has become toxic.
.. American business may one day conclude that this was the moment when it booked all the benefits of the Trump era, while failing to account properly for the costs.