Trump blinks as trade war threatens consumers

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE on Tuesday moved to protect U.S. consumers from the next round of his trade war with China amid mounting threats to the economy and his reelection.

The White House said it would delay 10 percent tariffs slated to take effect Sept. 1 on certain consumer goods from China while exempting other products — less than two weeks after Trump announced the new import taxes.

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Postponing the tariffs until Dec. 15 is expected to temporarily cool U.S. trade tensions with China while also shielding consumers and American businesses from higher costs. Financial markets also rallied on the news after weeks of anxiety over a global slowdown.

But narrowing the scope and delaying the impact of the trade war suggests dwindling odds of striking a broader agreement with China.

Trump insisted Tuesday that he maintains the upper hand in his battle with China, arguing that Chinese President Xi Jinping is eager to make a deal. Even so, Trump conceded that he decided to hold off on additional tariffs because of the potential harm to consumers.

“We’re doing this for Christmas season, just in case some of the tariffs would have an impact on U.S. customers,” Trump said.

Trump has already imposed a 25 percent tariff on $250 billion in Chinese imports and will subject roughly $300 billion more to a 10 percent tariff starting in mid-December.

The new set of tariffs would cover and likely raise prices for hundreds of food and agricultural products, articles of clothing, shoes, household staples and a slew of other crucial consumer goods made in few places, if any, beyond China.

Those products include cellphones, laptop computers, video game consoles, toys and certain articles of footwear and clothing.

Trump has long denied that American consumers would cover the costs of tariffs, which are taxes paid by U.S. importers of Chinese goods. The president has argued that China has effectively footed the bill on its own products as its economy slows and the value of its currency falls.

But Trump’s decision to delay further tariffs until after the bulk of the holiday shopping season reflects mounting fears that the trade war could derail the robust U.S. economy in the coming months.

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Economists at Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Moody’s Analytics warned ahead of Tuesday’s announcement that the odds of a recession between now and the 2020 election were rising, due in part to Trump’s trade policy.

A slowdown would be a daunting obstacle for any incumbent president, and Trump has hinged his reelection bid largely on the health of the economy.

Whether growth stagnates depends predominately on the strength of consumer spending, the force behind roughly 70 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth.

Uncertainty driven by Trump’s trade war and other economic headwinds has dampened U.S. business investment, which fell 0.6 percent in the second quarter of 2019. But a stellar 4.3 percent boost to consumer spending helped GDP grow at a stable 2.1 percent annual rate in the same three-month period.

Retailers had warned Trump that the new tariffs could force layoffs, store closings and price increases heading into the holiday shopping season.

“I'm sure the feedback they've been getting is the concerns about the economy and how it's primarily being supported right now by the consumer,” said Stephen Myrow, managing partner at Beacon Policy Advisors in Washington. “You don't want to really do anything that's going to undermine that.”

Trade associations for retailers and manufacturers offered limited praise for the tariff delay while expressing deep concern with what might come next.

The White House plans to exempt some items from the new China tariffs, but almost all of the goods the U.S. imports from China will still be subject to taxes.

“We urge the administration to develop an effective strategy to address China’s unfair trade practices by working with our allies instead of using unilateral tariffs that cost American jobs and hurt consumers,” David French, senior vice president of government relations at the National Retail Federation, said in a statement.

The delay also offers little more than a flash of hope for farmers who have suffered from billions in lost sales to China since the trade war began in July 2018.

It’s unclear if or when China will resume purchasing U.S. crops and livestock, despite intense pressure from Trump to do so. Xi is under close scrutiny for China’s handling of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that Beijing has pinned on Trump, further complicating the path to a comprehensive trade deal.

“He can't be seen in any way showing any weakness towards the United States,” Myrow said of Xi. “A lot of goodwill is gone between Trump and Xi, so I think it's a pretty intractable situation while they're both the ones in charge.”