Trump’s Allies Say He Really Wants Free Trade. Fat Chance.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A lot of Republicans in Congress will tell you that they support President Donald Trump but disagree with him about trade. There is, however, a small group of conservatives who have found a more ingenious method for reconciling their support for free trade with their enthusiasm for the president.

They have remade him into a fellow free trader in their own minds. And having reinvented Trump in this way, they are going on to fashion him into a highly effective free trader at that.

Thus Marc Thiessen writes in the Washington Post that “contrary to what his critics allege, Trump is not a protectionist; rather, he is using tariffs as a tool to advance a radical free-trade agenda.”

Sometime Trump adviser Stephen Moore took the same line in the Washington Times, but with more enthusiasm, after Trump and the European Union called a kind of trade-war truce: “Well done, Mr. President. You’ve accomplished something in 18 months that no president has in at least 30 years.” The deal was “more evidence that the American president is the master negotiator. . . . [H]e has played the Europeans like a fiddle.”

You can see why the Republican National Committee emailed the article far and wide.

To deny that Trump is a protectionist, Moore and Thiessen have to ignore his own words — such as the ones he delivered at his Inaugural, to wit, “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”

They have to ignore the many times he has said that his goal is to reduce trade deficits, not trade barriers. They have to look past the fact that the Trump administration’s only completed agreement on trade, the one it made with South Korea, involved getting that country to accept quotas on how much steel it can sell to Americans.

They also have to skip over the details of the very agreement that they are touting. A promise that Europe will buy more soybeans and liquefied natural gas from America, to the extent it means anything, is a promise of managed rather than free trade.

But that extent is limited. European soybean imports from the U.S. were likely to increase naturally. China is buying fewer soybeans from the U.S. as part of the fallout from our trade war with it. That means it will buy more soybeans from Brazil, and so Europe will have to buy more from us.

All the EU is saying about gas is that it will import more from America as it builds its capacity to do so. That’s something that was going to happen anyway, with or without any agreement with Trump — and with or without his tariffs and tariff threats.

Trump episodically claims that he wants zero trade barriers all around, and it’s a good thing that we’re going to have talks with the EU about liberalization. But we didn’t need to place tariffs on steel and aluminum, in the process inflicting damage on the many American companies that use steel and aluminum in making their own products, to get Europe to the table.

Negotiations with Europe to bring trade barriers down were further along before Trump took office than they are now. Trump is the one who froze those negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, in order to launch his trade war.

Many other trade agreements have been concluded over the last few years without any need for self-destructive tariffs. The EU and Japan just made a deal. Neither had to restrict imports from the other first.

We had gone far toward creating a Trans-Pacific Partnership before Trump pulled out of it, and the other countries in those talks are moving forward without us. None of the parties had to initiate a trade conflict to get these talks in motion. The truth is that other countries have been willing to move forward on reducing trade barriers, because their leaders are generally less protectionist than Trump is.

It is of course always possible that tariffs or the threat of tariffs will lead other countries to drop their own trade barriers or reduce their use of abusive practices such as the theft of intellectual property. So far Trump’s tactics — his tariffs on washing machines, solar panels, steel and aluminum, and Chinese imports — have yielded almost no such reform. The one exception: South Korea has raised the number of cars it will allow American companies to sell. But that is a fairly theoretical gain, since American companies have not been hitting today’s lower caps.

What isn’t theoretical are the higher costs for American consumers and companies Trump’s tariffs have imposed, or the retaliatory tariffs they have provoked.

It would be nice if the administration had put as much intelligence and ingenuity into setting its trade policies as Trump’s defenders have put into devising rationales for them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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