Breakingviews - Tariff strain will outlast Trump, impeached or not

U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., December 14, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters Breakingviews) - Donald Trump will leave an economic mark on the world, whether he’s impeached or not. The U.S. president on Wednesday will likely become the third to be charged with high crimes and misdemeanors, after Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. It’s up to the Senate to decide his fate in a trial. Either way, he will also leave another historic blot: normalizing trade tactics as punishment.

The former reality TV star’s legacy as a consequential president has been assured now that Democrats controlling the U.S. House of Representatives are expected to approve charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. There’s a good chance that the Republican-controlled Senate will acquit him in 2020, as Trump simultaneously vies for a second term in the November election.

His habit of imposing tariffs on friends and foes alike will leave a longer-lasting impression. About a year into his presidency, Trump slapped import taxes on steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico and the European Union. Though Republicans in Congress criticized him for lashing out at allies and abusing his authorities, they did nothing to rein him in. Around the same time, he began ratcheting up levies on China.

Trump took matters further by using trade tactics for non-economic grievances – something most of his recent predecessors did not. He raised steel tariffs until Turkey released a detained American pastor, and threatened to hit all Mexican goods with levies if it didn’t stop illegal immigrants crossing the U.S. border. Import taxes on champagne loom in response to a French tax that would affect U.S. internet companies. Meanwhile, the list of Chinese companies on an export black list keeps growing.

Other countries have followed suit. A dispute over a 2018 South Korean court decision allowing victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule to demand compensation from Japanese firms upended trade relations between the two countries. Tokyo imposed export restrictions on Japanese products needed to make Korean semiconductors and removed Korea from its list of trusted trade partners. Seoul retaliated.

Those kinds of actions are now an accepted part of the economic toolkit in America and elsewhere. Growing nationalist and populist sentiments make it harder to refrain from such moves. Removing a president from office is tough but theoretically possible. Undoing the effects of reckless White House trade policy is much harder.


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