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Sunday Politics Roundup


It has been a chaotic week in Washington, even by the Trump White House standards. The president lost his top aide, Hope Hicks. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is under scrutiny for his business dealings again. And the president pingponged around on gun control policy, confusing Congress. But the biggest Trump shock came at the end of the week. He may have started a trade war. NPR's political correspondent Mara Liasson is here to help us sort it all out. Good morning, Mara.


MONTAGNE: Let's start with the trade. What is the president doing?

LIASSON: On Thursday, the president announced some very tough tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum that stunned many in his own White House because this hadn't gone through any kind of a policy process. He does seem eager to start a trade war. He tweeted, trade wars are good and easy to win. That's a view shared by just about zero economists. This move is only favored by a very small group in the administration - the commerce secretary, the U.S. trade representative but not the treasury secretary, the secretary of defense or the president's top economic adviser.

MONTAGNE: You know, we have seen the president take these dramatic positions before, I have to say, only to change his mind later. On gun control these past few weeks, he moved from one side to another. He sounded like a Democrat on some initial proposals, then backed off 24 hours later. Same thing with immigration. Why would trade be any different?

LIASSON: It could be different because Donald Trump has deep, longstanding beliefs here. He has believed for 30 or more years that trade deficits and surpluses are measures of strength. He sees them like a score card or a balance sheet, not indications of comparative advantage. And unlike gun control or immigration laws, he doesn't need Congress for this one. When he talks about making legislative deals with Democrats on guns or immigration, the GOP leadership in Congress can just ignore him. On this one, they can't because presidents have unilateral power to raise tariffs.

MONTAGNE: And there's been quite a reaction to that tariff announcement. Talk to us about that.

LIASSON: Oh, my goodness. The reaction has been widespread, mostly negative. Up until now, there's been this view that Trump's bark is worse than his bite. He doesn't always do what he says. There hasn't been a war with North Korea yet. He hasn't ended NAFTA. But with the exception of the steel and aluminum manufacturers in America, corporate America has reacted very negatively. The Wall Street Journal editorial page called it his greatest policy blunder. Conservatives, who've been pleased with how in line he's been with their wishes on almost everything else, are horrified now. Although, they shouldn't be because, as I said, he's been talking about this for 30 years. So now Republicans are hoping he can be talked out of it. Here's Republican Senator from South Dakota John Thune.

JOHN THUNE: Yeah. I mean, I don't know how to explain it (laughter) because I've been in meetings with him on trade. And everybody's been very clear that we think some of the decisions that they're talking about making and policies they're talking about implementing would be very harmful to the economy at a time when it's really taking off. So I don't know.

LIASSON: And around the world, allies like the EU and Canada, who would be hit hardest by these tariffs, say they're going to retaliate. The president tweeted back, saying, fine. If the EU does that, we're going to slap a car tax on them - not sure exactly what he means. But I'll tell you who's happy about this - Democratic rustbelt senators up for re-election. They are thrilled. But the president has now really driven a wedge between his own parts of his own blue-collar base and the Republican Party because agriculture interests - part of Trump's red state base - don't like this. And many small manufacturers who use steel and aluminum also don't like it.

MONTAGNE: So what about it? Could he be talked out of this?

LIASSON: Well, it's possible this could be yet another short-lived reality TV-style moment for Trump like immigration and guns. But no one knows. Again, if he goes ahead with this, we'll see what happens, as Trump likes to say, because the American economy is going to be the guinea pig used in this experiment.

MONTAGNE: NPR's political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.