Nowhere Fast: Trump Bogged Down As US Wades Into Multi-Front Trade War

This month, during trade talks in Washington, US officials reportedly used a physical copy of the draft deal with China as a stage prop to make a point to EU negotiators.

“As if to highlight the distance between the two sides, US officials… at one point brought out a binder containing a 150-page text negotiated with China and showed it off”, Bloomberg wrote Thursday, in a piece documenting the extent to which talks with the EU are going nowhere fast.

If true, that just underscores the notion that there is no “art of the deal” going on behind the scenes. Instead, the US is employing tactics that would be right at home in a sitcom about international relations. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, the US president has, by almost all accounts, failed at nearly every business venture he’s ever embarked on with the exception of reality television. So, here we are – walking into meetings with America’s closest allies and proudly pointing at bulging binders to demonstrate just how miserable things are likely to get.

That the Trump administration hasn’t engaged the EU in substantive talks, let alone come anywhere near making actual progress, is hardly surprising. The administration is embroiled in so many fights, both at home and abroad, that only someone as incorrigible and attention-seeking as Trump could cope with it all without having a nervous breakdown. Far from suggesting the president has an iron constitution and an unshakable resolve, it more likely means that Trump simply enjoys the spectacle of it all. For someone as narcissistic as him, it’s probably gratifying to know that everyone from junior US lawmakers to foreign heads of state wake up every day wondering what the madman in the Oval Office might tweet next.

This is dangerous, and eventually, people get exhausted with the absurdity of it all. There’s more than a little irony in US officials referencing the tome-like draft agreement with the Chinese to make a point to EU negotiators. After all, Xi took a red marker to that draft agreement on May 3. His extensive “edits” are, by most accounts, what triggered Trump’s infamous May 5 Twitter broadside.

Earlier this month, Trump of course delayed a decision on auto tariffs in order to avoid a situation where ongoing escalations with China collided with the imposition of duties on car imports to further undermine fragile market sentiment.


The delay is only a positive development if you believe progress will be made over the next six months. Otherwise, it just drags things out, with the predictable effect of increasing the level of uncertainty.

Read more: Trump Decides Now Not Great Time To ‘Rid Fifth Avenue Of Mercedes’

We are now ten months removed from Trump’s farcical Rose Garden press conference with Jean-Claude Juncker. Hours before the July 25 meeting with Juncker in Washington, reports suggested Trump’s aides and advisors were becoming increasingly concerned that the President had already made up his mind on auto tariffs and couldn’t be swayed by reason. So, it came as a surprise when, just hours after the meeting with Juncker began, he and Trump strolled out into the Rose Garden and delivered a joint press conference full of conciliatory rhetoric.

Of course the “agreement” was short on details, but one thing that came across pretty forcefully was that the talking points were designed to appeal to Trump’s base. The lack of detail and headline- friendly talking points were consistent with the notion that Juncker simply cajoled the US president or otherwise sought to pacify him like a toddler. Sure enough, it turned out that Juncker used actual flash cards to demonstrate complicated dynamics to Trump in an effort to make sure he didn’t lose interest.

Having lost Juncker’s flash cards in the 10 months since the meeting and embroiled in myriad conflicts both trade-related and otherwise, Trump is hopelessly distracted. “European officials have blamed a Trump administration that has had little time for dealing with a bureaucracy in Brussels already held in low regard by many in the US president’s orbit”, Bloomberg goes on to write. “Distracting Trump has been a breakdown in talks with China and a need for a quick deal with Japan to assuage American agricultural interests.”

Complicating this immeasurably is the increasingly acrimonious relationship between Washington and Brussels with regard to security and Iran. Nobody has successfully disabused Trump of the notion that NATO is somehow “ripping off” the US and this week, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence warned Instex (Europe’s vehicle for maintaining trade with Iran in defiance of Trump) that the SPV is exposed to US sanctions.

As we’ve seen with Huawei and Hikvision, the Trump administration doesn’t differentiate between trade negotiations and other concerns (e.g., national security), which means it’s entirely possible that talks with Europe will get bogged down over NATO disputes and arguments about Brussels’ non-compliance wit the Iran sanctions.

On the home front, Europe is dealing with political tumult. Matteo Salvini seems intent on sticking to his fiscal guns at the risk of pushing Italy towards another bruising budget battle with Brussels, Marine Le Pen’s electoral success in the EU vote underscores voter discontent with Emmanuel Macron in France, Brexit is a mess and, as Bloomberg also notes, “eastern nations [are] testing the limits of ‘illiberal’ democratic reforms” (“illiberal democracy” is a term most often associated with Hungary’s Viktor Orban, a darling of the right-wing).

It’s also not entirely clear what Trump wants from Europe when it comes to autos. As Angela Merkel noted in a celebrated speech at The Munich Security Conference in February, the idea that German cars are a national security threat to the US is patently absurd. Ivanka Trump was in the audience.


In August, Cecilia Malmström told the European Parliament’s trade committee that, in talks with the Trump administration, the EU “said we are ready from the EU side to go to zero tariffs on all industrial goods if the US does the same.” Hours later, Trump opened his Twitter app and said “It’s not good enough.” “Their consumer habits are to buy their cars, not to buy our cars”, he added, suggesting that somehow, he expects the EU to actually change the preferences of car buyers in Europe.

Meanwhile, in yet another sign that tensions with China are rising, Beijing has reportedly halted “goodwill buying” of US soybeans in light of recent events. “State-grain buyers haven’t received any further orders… and don’t expect that to happen given the lack of agreement in trade negotiations”, sources told Bloomberg.

Last week, the Trump administration announced its second bailout program for American farmers hurt by the trade war.

Asked earlier this month whether she believed the US was prepared to begin serious negotiations with the EU on trade, Malmström said “I don’t think so.”


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One thought on “Nowhere Fast: Trump Bogged Down As US Wades Into Multi-Front Trade War

  1. If Trump hadn’t ‘meddled’ in the NAFTA renegotiation, with no resulting benefit, it would have been settled in time to have had the USMCA approved while the GOP controlled both Houses of Congress. As Rex Tillerson famously said, our ‘stable genius’ is a f@#Z$%g idiot (or was that moron?).

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