I was hoping that Bob Woodward’s new book would help me understand the strategy behind President Donald Trump’s trade policy. But like much of the rest of Washington, I found the “revelations” in the book, in a sense, shocking but not surprising. On trade policy, it largely confirmed what we already knew—the president just doesn’t like trade and will not listen to anything that contradicts his long-held views. Beyond the broad distrust of trade and trade agreements, specific policy decisions were disturbingly random, often depending on nothing more than who had last managed to catch the president’s ear. So, the lesson seems to be to expect continued chaos.
In one of the most telling moments in the book, Woodward reports that Trump wrote “TRADE IS BAD” in the margins of a speech he was revising. When asked by Gary Cohn, the then-chair of the National Economic Council, why he had such negative views on trade, Trump responded, “I just do. I’ve had these views for 30 years.” On another occasion, he insisted that when it came to the importance of trade deficits and the use of tariffs, “I know I’m right. If you disagree with me, you’re wrong.”
To the degree that these vague economic views translate into any guiding principles, it seems to be that trade deficits are bad and the United States runs large deficits because its trading partners are taking advantage of it, not because many Americans, including the federal government, spend more than they earn. So, not only does Trump not understand that trade policy has little if any effect on trade balances, he also does not understand that U.S. free trade agreements generally make the playing field more level for American exporters, not less.