The Memo: Trump’s risky gambit on trade roils markets

Fears of a trade war with China are roiling the stock markets and raising broader questions about President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE’s "America First" economic policies.

The Dow Jones industrial average plunged almost 600 points on Friday, a single-day decline of around 2.3 percent. The sell-off came after Trump, the previous evening, had threatened a new round of tariffs against China, upping the ante between the two nations.

Democrats and other Trump critics say the verdict on his approach is already in.

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“The stock market is sending a very clear verdict that they don’t think the trade war will be good for the economy,” said Jason FurmanJason FurmanTrump gets good news on wages On The Money: Trump waves off political risk from shutdown | Senate GOP, Dems get deal on major spending bill | Regulator to offer banking charters to financial tech firms | What to know from day one of Manafort trial American prosperity of Trump era marks real turning point in history MORE, who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama and is now a Harvard professor. 

“This isn’t like a trade-off between helping some workers and helping the economy. The market is saying the trade war will hurt workers and hurt the economy.”

At best, two political currents are colliding — Trump’s desire to deliver on his campaign promises to enact more protectionist polices, and his tendency to tie his own fortunes to those of the stock market.

Advocates of his brand of economic nationalism say that he is doing the right thing, whatever Wall Street might think.

In an interview with Reuters on Wednesday, Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, said, “Ask the working people in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan about Wall Street. Wall Street supported and cheered on the export of their jobs. To hell with Wall Street if they don’t like it.”

Other defenders of the president insist that the overall economic concerns are exaggerated. They note that the economy under Trump is robust, with low unemployment and high growth rates.

The stock market may have fallen by about 10 percent since its peak in January, they acknowledge. But even after several volatile weeks, it is roughly 30 percent higher than when Trump won the 2016 election. 

On Election Day 2016, the Dow closed at 18,332. On Friday, it closed at 23,932.

“The Trump economy has been pretty much a home run,” said GOP strategist Greg Mueller, a strong backer of the president. “When you take a look at the certainty he has brought into the economy over lower taxes, wages ticking up, unemployment at historic lows. The economy overall is in extremely good shape.”

Still, Trump’s position on trade and tariffs has clearly unnerved some Republicans. Aside from the fact that the GOP has been pro-free trade traditionally, some in the party also fear a self-inflicted injury that will hamper their ability to sell the tax-cut bill passed late last year.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDoug Jones to McConnell: Don't 'plow right through' with Kavanaugh Kavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week GOP, Kavanaugh accuser struggle to reach deal MORE (R-Ky,) said that he was “nervous” about what he characterized as “a growing trend in the administration to levy tariffs.” He added that embarking down that road was a “slippery slope.”

Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseMcConnell tamps down any talk of Kavanaugh withdrawal Senate approves 4B spending bill Grassley agrees to second Kavanaugh hearing after GOP members revolt MORE (R-Neb.) was more colorful in his objections when Trump, on Thursday, suggested ratcheting up the proposed tariffs on China even further. 

“If he’s even half-serious, this is nuts,” Sasse said in a statement. Sasse, whose state is heavily dependent upon agriculture, added that Trump was “threatening to light American agriculture on fire.”

Democrats echo Sasse’s emphasis on agriculture. They argue that, even while gyrations in the stock market command headlines, the potential for farmers and people in related industries to be hurt by rising trade tensions has serious and often overlooked consequences — both economically and politically.

“I think there are people — farmers who voted for Trump in states that he regards as part of his base — who are really angry about this,” said Democratic strategist Robert Shrum. “If you are a soybean farmer or you raise hogs, you are going to be very distressed about this.”

Soybeans and pork were among the items listed by China for 25 percent tariffs that it presented as retaliation for Trump’s moves.

The White House, meanwhile, has been trying to thread the needle of simultaneously defending Trump’s positions while also seeking to calm the situation. 

“We are not in a trade war,” chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters on Friday. “What this is, is an attempt to right some of the wrongs with respect to China.” 

Kudlow has also noted that it will be some time before the proposed tariffs, on either side, take effect.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters at Friday’s media briefing that the president still believed, as he has said previously, that a trade war could be won easily.

“The president feels like, if he is in charge of those negotiations, absolutely,” she said. “He is the best negotiator at the table.”

Pressed as to whether any of Trump’s recent words or actions had contributed to the stock market slide, Sanders instead emphasized that “the actions of the president have certainly strengthened our economy.”

There are, to be sure, many other factors influencing the stock market beyond trade and tariffs. 

Some more bearish analysts have been warning for some time that the market is overvalued and due for a correction. 

Concerns about imminent interest rate hikes have also had a cooling effect. The technology sector in general has been hurt by fresh concerns about Facebook, data privacy and the possibility of greater regulation.

But there have been other issues in which Trump has made his presence felt — most notably a series of recent tweets and public comments targeting online retail behemoth Amazon.

Peter Morici, a University of Maryland economist, believes that some of the speculation about a trade war has got out of hand and that the negative market reaction has been at times “irrational.”

But he also argued that Trump’s salvoes against Amazon were inappropriate.

“There is uncertainly about the high-tech sector and about Donald Trump just singling out an American company,” Morici said. “Presidents are not supposed to do that.”

Trump has always been willing to buck convention, however. 

There is no sign yet of him backing down on the trade policies that he believes helped him get elected.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.