If you listen closely to Wilbur Ross’s interview with Fox News from Thursday, he conveniently dodges the fact that the threat of auto tariffs on Europe and Japan stems from the invocation of “national security” concerns.
Watch the following clip again (and the “again” assumes you watched it yesterday):
Note that after a rambling defense of the administration’s misguided interpretation of trade deficits, Ross says the following when Bartiromo presses him on whether “we’re talking about more than trade”:
Well, Huawei is a whole different situation – national security is different.
Ross is asking you to ignore the fact that the auto tariffs “investigation” (maybe “witch hunt” is better) is being conducted explicitly on national security grounds. The metals tariffs were applied using the same excuse (Section 232).
So, no, Wilbur, national security is not “different” – that’s the whole point.
“With his crackdown on Chinese telecom giant Huawei and a new directive targeting European and Japanese carmakers, [Trump’s] administration is displaying its penchant to invoke US national security in the broadest way possible”, Bloomberg wrote Friday, adding that “in doing so Trump is exploiting a loophole in global trading rules and doing what his predecessors spent years urging China and others not to at the risk of opening a protectionist Pandora’s box.”
As the Bloomberg piece goes on to point out, concerns about Huawei are well established, but virtually nobody believes cars are a national security threat. Trump is illegitimately invoking national security to strong-arm Europe and Japan on trade, and while his crackdown on Huawei is legitimate when couched in terms of national security, the fact that it comes amid tense trade negotiations with Beijing suggests national security is but a secondary concern for the administration. More important, apparently, is the extent to which legitimate fears of Huawei’s connections to the PLA can be used as leverage to secure trade concessions from Beijing. Underscoring that is the fortuitously-timed arrest of Meng Wanzhou who, you’re reminded, was detained while Trump was between bites at dinner with Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires.
One could easily argue that Trump isn’t actually concerned about national security at all. If imported cars really posed an imminent security threat, then why did the administration decide to delay the imposition of tariffs for six months? And if metals were so dangerous, why is the US set to lift steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada and Mexico (that was tipped earlier this week by Steve Mnuchin, and confirmed on Friday)?
The answer, obviously, is that Trump was (and still is) concerned about the prospect of further losses on Wall Street and, ultimately, about his approval rating. So, while pressing ahead with one national security initiative (blackballing Huawei), the administration is simultaneously dialing back and delaying action tied to two other ostensible national security threats.
But, again, that’s not how “national security” usually works. If there are multiple real threats to national security, you don’t delay or otherwise water down your response to one just because you’re in the process of responding to another – unless of course you were never concerned about national security in the first place, and are just using that as an excuse to press another agenda.
Don’t let it be lost on you that Trump is using the same tactics on the border. One day “caravans are forming” and “bad hombres” are smuggling women and drugs into the US in “record numbers” (all of those are quotes from the president). But the next day, immigration is completely absent from Trump’s Twitter feed, replaced by Mueller rants, jabs at China and new nicknames for Joe Biden.
We’ve long argued in these pages that Trump would end up invoking “national security” to justify all manner of otherwise dubious maneuvers. Well, here we are – everything is a national security threat now, from BMWs to steel to 5G equipment to Honduran toddlers.
“Pandora’s box”, indeed.