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How Does a Tariff Trade War Begin? With Chaos and a Trump Tantrum

Which idea is more troubling: That President Donald Trump’s impending “trade war” was the product of spiraling administration chaos or a presidential temper tantrum? How about option three: Both?

NBC News and Axios issued reports Friday suggesting that some combination of Trumper tantrum and staff chaos greased the skids for the president’s Thursday announcement of steel and aluminum tariffs and Friday’s seemingly gleeful Twitter declaration that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.”

NBC’s Stephanie Ruhle and Peter Alexander report that the trade war declaration had as much to do with Trump’s mood-swings and mental state as with the substance of policy:

According to two officials, Trump’s decision to launch a potential trade war was born out of anger at other simmering issues and the result of a broken internal process that has failed to deliver him consensus views that represent the best advice of his team.

On Wednesday evening, the president became “unglued,” in the words of one official familiar with the president’s state of mind.

Stop there and consider: One of the president’s aides is describing him as becoming “unglued.” Unglued. The reporters go on to add that the resignation of Communications Director Hope Hicks, Trump’s frustrations with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the spectacular and ongoing unraveling of son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner “had set him off in a way that two officials said they had not seen before.” The report adds: “Trump, the two officials said, was angry and gunning for a fight, and he chose a trade war.”

He had a temper tantrum in other words.

Cartoons on President Donald Trump

This report is in keeping with one from Axios’ Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan who describe a president who “wanted to play by his rules alone. … His staff at times managed to talk him off the ledge. No more. Tired of the restraints, tired of his staff, Trump is reveling in ticking off just about every person who serves him.” Indeed, they go on to describe the tariffs announcement as “a big middle finger to economic adviser Gary Cohn,” who is now officially on a media resignation-watch given reports that his raison d’etre in the administration at this point was stopping tariffs.

To be sure, Trump has had a decades-long infatuation with tariffs. He has a perverse, machismo-infected misunderstanding of trade, that “it represents a kind of contest of pride, even manhood,” as The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman put it.

But the image emerging here is of a president governed by his anger and his frustration and using policy choices as a way of lashing out at staffers he’s frustrated with and situations he feels have spun beyond his control. Or as The New York Times’ Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman write: “Mr. Trump is isolated and angry, as well, according to other friends and aides, as he carries on a bitter feud with his attorney general and watches members of his family clash with a chief of staff he recruited to restore a semblance of order — all against the darkening shadow of an investigation of his ties to Russia.”

Of course, the administration has spent months trying to build up mechanisms aimed to reining in Trump and his rash impulses. But those safeguards, such as they are, are disintegrating as tensions between Kushner and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly become more visible and without alleged wife-beater Rob Porter on the scene to help keep order in the West Wing. Cohn had been working closely with Porter “to postpone, kill or narrow the scope of the tariffs,” Politico’s Ben White and Andrew Restuccia report. “Porter had been organizing weekly trade meetings in which senior officials and Cabinet secretaries debated the merits of the proposals. Without Porter to organize the administration’s policy debate, Trump’s advisers reverted back to the chaos of the early days of the administration, where aides fell all over each other to influence the president in any way they could.”

Per the NBC report, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross took advantage of the turmoil to nudge Trump into the direction that the president wanted to go anyway. Ross invited steel and aluminum executives to a White House listening session, but did not tell senior administration officials, including Kelly, who was on his invite list. “As a result, White House officials were unable to conduct a background check on the executives to make sure they were appropriate for the president to meet with and they were not able to be cleared for entry by secret service,” NBC reported.

Of course they did get in; and while the rest of the administration was still trying to do its bureaucratic due diligence and planning on trade policy, Trump was announcing his trade war.

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