President Donald Trump whiplashed Washington through 24 hours of chaos and confusion, culminating Thursday with a surprise announcement that he will unilaterally impose steep tariffs on all steel and aluminum imports.
His own aides were stunned. The stock market plunged. It was the moment many of his advisers had long feared would occur when he grew tired of talking points and economic theory and decided to do things his way.
The comments came in the Cabinet Room, where one day earlier, he had left Republicans slack-jawed by appearing to embrace liberal ideas on gun control, even proposing to seize firearms from people without a court order, a change from earlier in the week when he praised the National Rifle Association and called for arming teachers in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Trump often likes to sow misdirection, running the White House like a never-ending reality show where only he knows the plot. But even by his standards, the day-long period that ended Thursday left some senior aides and Republican lawmakers wondering whether the White House had finally come unmoored, detached from any type of methodology that past presidents have relied on to run the country and lead the largest economy in the world.
“There is no standard operating practice with this administration,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. “Every day is a new adventure for us.”
The trade decision signaled the marginalization of White House National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, who had argued against tariffs for months but was outmaneuvered by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and trade adviser Peter Navarro.
It also showed the growing absenteeism of White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who was at a public event Thursday morning talking about homeland security when the White House was locked in frenetic infighting over what to do.
Two senior White House officials said Trump was not listening to Kelly and was making it known to others that he was not listening to Kelly. Those people said that Cohn has complained loudly to colleagues about the decision and privately said that he might leave – but had not made a final decision.
A number of senior administration officials believe one catalyst for the problems was the sudden departure of staff secretary Rob Porter, who left the White House last month amid allegations of abuse by his two ex-wives.
Porter was part of an exodus of advisers who had worked to try to keep Trump focused and away from his protectionist instincts. They had prevented him from ripping apart trade agreements and imposing major tariffs on other countries, even U.S. allies such as Canada and Germany.
Porter tried to streamline decisions and corral divergent views into joint meetings, a challenge in a White House that has secret alliances and a flair for sensationalism. There was a weekly meeting on trade that included top advisers and was held toensurethere would not be surprises or rash decisions. Porter, these officials said, often presented the consensus views of the group or gave Trump recommendations. But Porter’s critics believed he was stonewalling and isolating people such as Navarro, whom Trump often wanted to hear from but did not have direct access to.
When Porter left, this process largely broke down, the officials said. Complicating matters, Porter had been dating White House communications director Hope Hicks, a longtime Trump aide who is one of the most influential members of the president’s inner circle and who announced Wednesday that she would also be leaving her job.
Porter’s departure weakened Kelly, whom Trump has repeatedly complained about to friends. Kelly, a retired Marine general, had sought to instill order and process in a president who preferred to have neither.
“There’s a lot of disarray,” said Larry Kudlow, who was a top adviser to Trump during the 2016 campaign.
“There may be a messaging and paper-flow problem in the wake of the Rob Porter departure,” he said. “I’m not defending what Rob did, but he was very good at what he did in the White House.”
With Trump relying less on Kelly to manage his advisers in recent weeks, the White House has reverted somewhat to the free-for-all approach that dominated Trump’s first few months in office.
Navarro, a White House adviser who believes foreign countries are stealing American jobs with cheap imports, had been marginalized within the West Wing by Kelly and Cohn. But with Kelly’s diminished status and Trump looking to follow through on some of the trade threats he made during the campaign, Navarro and Ross provided him with a plan: Impose tariffs on steel and aluminum in the name of national security. Trump has also been keeping a close eye on the special election this month for a U.S. House seat in western Pennsylvania, which he considers the heart of his political base. In recent weeks, he has been told by associates that voters in places such as Pennsylvania’s 18th District are looking for more to be done by the administration, according to two people familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
The president has noted that the Republican in the race is struggling in a district where he won by a large margin, those people said.
Navarro and Ross helped prepare the steel and aluminum tariff announcement, inviting executives to the White House without notifying a number of other White House advisers. When The Washington Post reported about Trump’s looming announcement Wednesday evening, many top White House officials were caught off guard, including the press office. Kelly told others in the White House that there was nothing for Trump to sign and that nothing had been reviewed by lawyers, according to a senior administration official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
“Gary got rolled and was entirely kept in the dark,” a person close to the White House said of Trump’s top economic adviser.
On Thursday morning, Trump had a meeting with top economic advisers, including Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Cohn warned against the tariffs, and a number of White House advisers came away from it believing that a decision had been postponed and that Trump’s meeting with steel and aluminum executives would amount to little more than another gathering of CEOs at the White House, several people briefed on the planning said.
After all, they had persuaded Trump before, diverting him from withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement and a free-trade agreement with South Korea.
But that all changed around noon. Trump unexpectedly summoned reporters into the Cabinet Room for his meeting with the executives. Senior White House officials did not want reporters to attend the meeting, for fear of Trump announcing tariffs, but the president made an impromptu call to bring in the media and proceeded to announce his trade crackdown.
“What’s been allowed to go on for decades is disgraceful,” Trump said.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 500 points within several hours. The move raised questions about whether Trump would try to break free of aides who had long tried to hem him in on NAFTA, South Korea and other trade decisions.
When told of the tariff announcement, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) – whose powerful committee has jurisdiction over trade – responded: “Oh, yeah? He did that? He’s controversial.”
“Well, I don’t think that’s a wise move,” continued Hatch, who mirrored the view of many Senate Republicans.
For months, there had been weekly trade meetings on Tuesdays with Navarro, Ross, Cohn, U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. People had been given assignments to study and analyze at their agencies and report back.
Cohn had told the president that tariffs could spark a trade war. He and others had warned that other countries would retaliate, imposing tariffs on U.S. exports, damaging an economy that Trump was trying to build up through his tax cuts, people familiar with these talks said. They would remind Trump about how well the stock market was doing.
Cohn was the person arguing the most against tariffs, but people took turns talking to the president and trying to talk him out of them, trying to coordinate their messages.
But Trump was enamored with tariffs, convinced they were one of the only ways to punish other countries for practices he felt disadvantaged U.S. manufacturers. Domestic steel and aluminum production has plummeted in recent decades because of low prices offered by companies from China and other countries.
“We’re getting screwed,” Trump would tell advisers. “We need tariffs.”
But they delayed decisions last year because they didn’t want to splinter the GOP during the tax debate, which ended in December.
In February, Ross gave Trump an opening to act. Ross’s team put together a report saying that large amounts of cheap steel and aluminum posed a national security risk for the United States, giving Trump the impetus to act unilaterally.
Ross brought three recommendations to Trump, the most severe of which was a 25 percent tariff on steel and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum. Ross and Navarro favored the most extreme options, people briefed on the talks said, though Lighthizer was wary, worried about what it might mean for his efforts to renegotiate NAFTA. Canada is a large exporter to the United States and had threatened to respond negatively if it were hit with new tariffs.
This week, Ross and Navarro prepared for the big announcement Thursday, but senior National Economic Council officials were unaware that Trump was so close to making an announcement.
It came just one day after Trump stunned many of the same Republicans from the same Cabinet Room by talking positively about ideas pushed by Democrats to limit access to certain guns.
White House advisers were planning to release a detailed plan to fix the government’s gun background check system and offer new school grants as part of a response to the Feb. 14 school shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead. The meeting was supposed to be measured and cautious. The White House drafted ideas to be released later this week, including changes to the FBI tip line, that were seen internally as sensible and passable in Congress.
Trump has been telling people for several days that he wants to do more than his advisers believe can be done on guns, a person close to the discussions said. White House legislative affairs director Marc Short and others have told him the votes are not there for some of his proposals, White House officials say.
Trump latched on to almost every idea Democrats offered, mocking some Republicans for not going far enough. At one point during the meeting, Trump chastised Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), a major author of last year’s tax law, for not pushing to ban access to semiautomatic weapons for people under 21.
“You know why? Because you’re afraid of the NRA,” Trump said at the meeting, referring to the organization that Trump himself had praised repeatedly just days earlier.
Then he went further, saying the government should be able to take guns away from people who might cause harm even if there isn’t a court order – the type of step some gun owners have accused Democrats of favoring. He seemed to be ad-libbing as the meeting went on.
“The cameras came in, and he just did his whole thing like he always does,” a senior White House official said.
Senior White House aides, including Short, have continued to tell Republican members not to overreact to Trump’s comments, particularly on the military-style rifle ban he seemed to support. One senior GOP aide said Trump’s team was telling them to recall earlier meetings on immigration, where he seemed to side with Democrats before eventually changing his tune.
“I just have to say that when the president makes these sweeping statements, you really have to take it with a grain of salt and realize that after he gets the polling data back about the reaction of his base, he often reverses himself,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Damian Paletta, Josh Dawsey