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Analysis: Trump blindsides Republicans with trade announcement at end of chaotic week
President Donald Trump broke with Republican orthodoxy for the second time in two days on Thursday, taking GOP lawmakers and his own staffers by surprise as he announced plans to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
In a meeting with industry executives Thursday, Trump said he would formally sign measures next week setting tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum. Many White House aides were "stunned" by the announcement, according to the New York Times and the Washington Post; trade plans were reportedly still being discussed and they had not counted an announcement being made yet.
President Trump defended his decision on Twitter this morning, positing that the U.S. "is losing many billion dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with." He insisted: "Trade wars are good, and easy to win." Yet, his off-the-cuff announcement Thursday resulted in worries on Wall Street, as the Dow dropped 420 points on Thursday and the S&P 500 slid 1.3 percent.
The White House had not notified congressional Republicans of the trade move, sparking rebukes from many allies on Capitol Hill. "Tariffs on steel and aluminum are a tax hike the American people don't need and can't afford," Senate Finance Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said in a statement.
"I think this is terribly counterproductive for the [agricutlure] economy, and I'm not happy," Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) said on CNN.
"New, huge tariffs on all kinds of imported steel is a big mistake that will increase costs on American consumers, cost our country jobs, and invite retaliation from other countries," Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) said in a statement.
"Let's be clear: the president is proposing a massive tax increase on American families," Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) said in a statement. "Protectionism is weak, not strong. You'd expect a policy this bad from a leftist administration, not a supposedly Republican one."
Sasse's statement was his second stinging criticism of the president this week. On Wednesday, in a meeting with lawmakers that took place in the Cabinet Room (the same location as his meeting on trade), President Trump also broke from his GOP patrons in appearing open to a number of Democratic priorities on gun control, from expanded background checks to an assault weapons ban. Trump even suggested that law enforcement officials should be able to wrest guns away from individuals believed to be dangerous without going to a court. "I like taking the guns early," he said. "Take the guns first, go through due process second."
Much like his trade announcement, Trump's comments at the meeting caused a scramble at the White House and on Capitol Hill, as Republicans watched their party's leader drift away from their traditional stance on guns. "Strong leaders don't automatically agree with the last thing that was said to them. We have the Second Amendment and due process of law for a reason," Sasse said in a statement after the meeting. "We're not ditching any Constitutional protections simply because the last person the President talked to today doesn’t like them.
But most Republican lawmakers weren't as forceful as Sasse, confident that the guns debate would play out similarly to the back-and-forth on immigration earlierthisyear, when the president seemed to publicly back bipartisan legislation in front of the television cameras, but failed to actually lobby for the measure later.
White House officials "have continued to tell Republican members not to overreact to Trump’s comments," pointing to his comments on immigration to prove that the president's words won't translate into policy actions, according to the Post. And they may already be right: Trump met with representatives of the National Rifle Association (NRA) on Thursday night, who claimed that the president had backed away from his Wednesday pro-gun control stance. "I had a great meeting tonight with @realDonaldTrump & @VP," NRA lobbyist Chris Cox said in a late-night tweet. "We all want safe schools, mental health reform and to keep guns away from dangerous people. POTUS & VPOTUS support the Second Amendment, support strong due process and don’t want gun control. #NRA #MAGA."
Trump also tweeted about the meeting Thursday night: "Good (Great) meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA!" he said. The tweet came just one day after he had accused Sen. Toomey and other Republicans of not enacting more gun reforms because they were "afraid of the NRA."
Trump's surprising moves on trade and guns only added to a swirling week of chaos unlike any his administration has seen since its early, freewheeling days under then-chief of staff Reince Priebus. In the week, two top White House officials announced plans to resign: spokesperson Josh Raffel and communications director Hope Hicks, the president's closest and longest-serving aide.
In addition, president's trade announcement may be the last straw for his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, who loudly opposed the tariffs internally; according to Politico, the decision might push him to resign. Cohn's loss was another sign of the ascendance of trade adviser Peter Navarro, who encouraged more aggressive trade action and is aligned with the White House's "nationalist" wing while Cohn, the Democratic former No. 2 at Goldman Sachs, is firmly planted among the "globalists."
National security adviser H.R. McMaster appears headed for the exit as well: according to NBC News, the White House is preparing to replace him as early as next month. McMaster has reportedly had a strained relationship not only with President Trump, but with White House chief of staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis as well. "We frequently face rumor and innuendo about senior administration officials," principal deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah said in response to NBC's report, a clear non-denial. "There are no personnel announcements at this time."
And Trump nursed his rift with Attorney General Jeff Sessions again this week, criticizing his "disgraceful" leadership of the Justice Department and receiving a pushback from Sessions in response. Does the president want Sessions fired? "Not that I know of," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said on Thursday, as rumors continued to fly of Trump's anger with his AG.
Inside the White House, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner continues to face troubles after a week that included the downgrading of his security clearance as well as reports that foreign countries are attempting to manipulate him and that he has met at the White House with leaders of companies that then gave his family business loans. According to CNN, Kushner is "paranoid" that these reports amount to a coordinated attack against him, as he is locked in an internal battle with chief of staff Kelly. His wife, First Daughter Ivanka Trump, is also in hot water: CNN reported that the FBI has been investigating one of her international business deals, which may be preventing her from obtaining full security clearance.
Kushner, along with many others in the White House, is operating in the shadow of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, which appears to be intensifying. Reports all week sought to shinelight on where Mueller is going next; on Thursday, NBC News reported that Mueller is eyeing charges "against Russians who carried out the hacking and leaking of private information designed to hurt Democrats in the 2016 election."
According to the New York Times, Trump is "isolated and angry," particularly as he prepares to part with his "surrogate daughter" Hicks, but refuses to make changes to the "chaos theory" that has governed his White House thus far. The report said that the president is "frustrated" with Kushner, saying they "never should have come to the White House" and enlisting Kelly to push them out, while also telling his son-in-law and daughter that "they should keep serving" in their official West Wing roles.
"Tired of the restraints, tired of his staff, Trump is reveling in ticking off just about every person who serves him," Axios reported. "Rarely has a modern president confronted so many crises and controversies across so many fronts at the same time," the Associated Press declared. Numerous media reports portray White House morale as nearing an all-time low.
Kelly has been enfeebled by the Rob Porter scandal, when he lost a top ally to allegations of spousal abuse. Fallout over the White House staff secretary's exit caused new scrutiny on Kelly's leadership, particularly as it pertained to White House security clearances. This focus led to more than 30 staffers losing their top-secret clearance, according to Bloomberg, with Kushner the highest-profile figure among them. The Porter scandal also gave way to rumors that Trump was planning to replace Kelly, although those have yet to come to fruition.
Kelly's vulnerability has given way to an overflow of leaks to media outlets on West Wing infighting, at a rate reminiscent of the Priebus era.
And where was Kelly on Thursday, as Trump upended Washington by essentially declaring a trade war on foreign countries? Across town at the Department of Homeland Security, marking the agency's 15th anniversary by lamenting on his move from DHS Secretary to White House chief of staff, which he described as divine vengeance.
"Truly, at six months, the last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of Homeland Security," he said. "But I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess."
Gun control: The Senate left Washington on Thursday without any movement on gun legislation. Spooked by the president's urging to add a number of progressive measures to the bill, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn's Fix NICS Act went nowhere. The upper chamber approved a resolution on Thursday condemning the Parkland shooting, but nothing more. McConnell says the Senate will focus on banking reform next week.
Mueller probe: Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is set to make his second court appearance of the week in Alexandria, Virginia today, where he faces a second federal indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller on 18 criminal counts of bank fraud and tax crimes.
Congressional investigations: Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and ranking member Mark Warner (D-WV) met with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) last month to raise concerns about their counterpart, House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA), the New York Times reported. According to the Times, Burr and Warner have concluded that Republicans on Nunes' panel were behind the leak of Warner's private text messages.
Trump Administration: Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, will resign from her post in May, she told embassy staff on Thursday. Jacobson, who has recorded over three decades of government service but became ambassador less than two years ago, is the latest in a string of career diplomats to leave Trump's State Department. She leaves while tensions are high between the U.S. and Mexico, as the president has criticized Mexico and demanded that the country pay for his proposed border wall.
FBI: Former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, a frequent Trump target, is expected to be criticized in an upcoming Justice Department report for leaking information on the Hillary Clinton private server investigation to journalists, the Washington Post reported.
Trump vs. Baldwin: President Trump attacked actor Alec Baldwin on Twitter this morning, responding to his comments in a Hollywood Reporter interview. "Alec Baldwin, whose dying mediocre career was saved by his terrible impersonation of me on SNL, now says playing me was agony," he said. "Alec, it was agony for those who were forced to watch." Trump then urged "Saturday Night Live" to bring backer Darrell Hammond, "funnier and a far greater talent," who impersonated Trump on the comedy show before Baldwin. The president tweeted about Baldwin early this morning, misspelling his name as "Alex" before deleting the message and re-posting with the correct spelling.
Today in Washington
Trump's schedule: President and First Lady Trump attend the funeral of the late Rev. Billy Graham in Charlotte, North Carolina today. Graham, an evangelical Christian leader who was known as the "Pastor to Presidents," passed away last week at the age of 99.
Following the funeral, the Trumps will fly to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, where they will spend the weekend. Later tonight, the president will host a roundtable with Republican National Committee (RNC) supporters and speak at the RNC Spring Donor Retreat, which is being held at Mar-a-Lago.
Congress schedule: Both houses of Congress are on recess today.
*All times Eastern