A seal balancing a beach ball on its nose. Amusing. A cat thumping the keys on a piano. Funny. Donald J. Trump posing as a whiz at economics. Sidesplitting.
Amid slowing economic growth, financial-market volatility and rising fears of recession, the comic-in-chief recently offered a priceless punchline:
“We’re doing tremendously well,” said the would-be emperor of Greenland. “Our consumers are rich. I gave a tremendous tax cut and they’re loaded up with money.”
Cue a gale of glee from the country-club set. For the rest of us, it was a gag line that invites a gag reflex.
This president strives to make the affluent richer. Everyone else? The joke’s on us.
From field to factory, Trump’s trade war has hit U.S. exporters as hard, if not harder, than importers.
Retaliation to rising U.S. import tariffs has invited bankruptcy for many growers of soybeans, corn and wheat, in Minnesota and across the nation — despite tens of billions in taxpayer bailout money that’s mostly going to big agribusinesses, not family farmers.
Almost from the first day in office, Trump has tried to pick winners and losers — to bless one group of companies, investors or workers even if it means cursing others. The “haves” usually gain on the “have-nots.”
For every job at a steel mill “saved” by raising the price of imported metals, more jobs are lost at companies that buy steel to make everything from cars to pots and pans. Even some of the jobs supposedly spared don’t last long.
Trump once touted U.S. Steel as a sure winner from his import tariffs. Months later, the company laid off 200 at one of its mills in Michigan. Trump earlier claimed that U.S. Steel was opening six — or was it seven? — new plants. The number kept changing. The actual total: zero. Sad.
Meanwhile, American consumers are casualties. By one estimate, the average household will see its cost of living rise by $1,000 a year as a result of Trump’s trade war.
“The president’s tariffs, when combined with corresponding retaliation, threaten $665 billion of traded goods annually,” according to a right-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C.
The American Action Forum concluded: “Altogether, the president’s tariffs could increase nationwide consumer costs by nearly $100 billion annually.”
But, wait. The White House always can find a way to make matters worse.
The latest example: a mysterious, unseen process for granting exemptions to Trump’s ever-growing list of import tariffs. The line of applicants is long and the wait for a government decision even longer.
The man who labels himself “Mr. Tariff” is nothing if not discriminating. (In more ways than one.)
With the wave of a hand, Trump’s import tax vanishes for some firms and products even as others cannot escape the tab. Magic! Or, more likely, opportunities for misdirection, mishandling and misdeed.
How long before the inevitable scandals about corruption or incompetence in choosing who escapes Trump’s tariffs? With billions of dollars at stake, the spoils could pile high and emit a fragrance that attracts seagulls.
More about that in a moment.
The old Republican ideal was “get government out of the way.” In Trump World, political apparatchiks, former lobbyists and retired corporate operatives stand front and center — often aiding industries that once employed them.
Want to trample national lands for oil, lumber and mining? Trump’s got an app for that. He’s put former oil lobbyists in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department.
Seeking a military contract? Find a friend in the new secretary of defense, a former lobbyist for a leading weapons contractor.
From the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Energy, dozens of former lobbyists now manage how rules are enforced and who bears the consequences.
People should remember that Trump vowed to run the U.S. economy like one of his businesses. Was that a promise or a threat?
In years past, he drove a half-dozen of his ventures into bankruptcy. All while losing a billion dollars — more than any other U.S. taxpayer, according to Internal Revenue Service records unearthed by the New York Times.
Let’s face it: America’s first self-styled billionaire president isn’t good with money. He’s also not a stickler for detail.
Which raises Trump’s offer of absolution on some tariffs. It’s a tacit admission that the import taxes can kill sales and profits — inviting layoffs and plant closings.
People who matter in Republican politics — executives at top corporations, as well as denizens of local chambers of commerce — were squawking. Tariff exemptions and waivers were Trump’s response.
But for many, the exemptions program has meant no answer at all. The Commerce Department, at last count, had 80,000 exemption requests for steel and aluminum products alone.
As of February, the agency had announced decisions in 3,512 cases. Of those, only 385 were approved. To some 76,500 applicants: the sound of silence.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, an Indiana Republican, represents a state where recreational vehicle makers and other manufacturers rely on steel and aluminum parts. Earlier this year she complained that the exemption program is without a timetable or clear guidelines.
In theory, exemptions and waivers will go only to companies that cannot find alternatives to parts and materials imported from China and other U.S. tariff targets. In a phrase, hardship cases.
But in practice? The tariff relief program “has been a master class in government inefficiency plagued by maddening inconsistency,” Walorski wrote in a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Walorski begged for improvements in “fairness, transparency and efficiency for all participants.” In plain English, who’s behind the curtain pulling the levers, and what separates the winners and losers?
Good luck finding out.
The Commerce Department has hired at least 30 steel specialists to examine tariff waiver requests from metals importers.
The process is deliriously complex. International economics expert Anne Krueger dwelled on that point in a visit late last year to the University of Minnesota, where she once taught.
“It’s amazing how complicated you can get very quickly,” she said. “Some of those complications are at the crux of what can go wrong.”
Take South Korea, one of several countries apart from China that exports steel to the United States.
It makes 54 kinds of steel subject to U.S. quotas, another way to raise the cost of imports. The Commerce Department anticipated about 4,500 requests for exemptions on South Korean steel quotas. It received more than 75,000.
Not only that, but exemption requests were required to detail the chemical composition, strength and dimensions of the imported metals. Government inspectors at U.S. ports are expected to certify the information is correct.
Big multinational firms may have the wherewithal to comply. But their smaller competitors? Not so much.
The result is a government quagmire — the sort of paperwork pileups and verdicts made by faceless bureaucrats that Republicans once claimed to find repulsive.
The White House has promised that U.S. companies dunned with tariffs will get a rebate on past payments if they’re granted exemptions.
But the wait has spread from weeks to months. That was even before Trump threatened to expand tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese goods before the end of the year. Trump lately has made noise about raising barriers to European imports, as well.
Commerce Department officials will be receiving enough applications for relief to fill Olympic swimming pools. Or maybe a Great Lake or two.
Who’s making the decisions? What are the standards? The Trump team’s answer: “We’ll get back to you.”
Given Trumplandia’s history of backroom deals, cronyism and corruption, White House officials could streamline the process for answering tariff exemption requests.
Send applicants reply forms with one of three responses checked:
__ What’s it worth to you?
Mike Meyers, a former Star Tribune business reporter, is a writer in Minneapolis.