Corporate America concerned about president’s tactics
President Donald Trump’s aggressive and wildly unpredictable use of tariffs is spooking American business groups, which have long formed a potent force in his Republican Party.
Corporate America was blindsided last week when Trump threatened to impose crippling taxes on Mexican imports in a push to stop the flow of Central American migrants into the United States.
The two sides reached a truce Friday after Mexico agreed to do more to stop the migrants. But by Monday, Trump was again threatening the tariffs if Mexico didn’t abide by an unspecified commitment, to “be revealed in the not too distant future.”
Such whipsawing is now a hallmark of Trump’s trade policy. The president repeatedly threatens tariffs, sometimes imposes them, sometimes suspends them, sometimes threatens them again. Or drops them.
Business groups, already uncomfortable with Trump’s attempts to stem immigration, are struggling to figure out where to stand in the fast-shifting political climate. They have happily supported his corporate tax cuts and his moves to loosen environmental and other regulations. But many are concerned about the president’s mercurial approach to tariffs.
The Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs, opposes the use of tariffs and has made the case to the administration about the risks they pose to economic growth. But Trump has remained a fervent advocate of the import taxes anyway.
“They are going to do what they do – it’s not up to us,” Jamie Dimon, chairman of the Business Roundtable and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, said at a gathering of reporters Wednesday.
“Business is losing,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist and frequent Trump critic. “He calls himself ‘Mr. Tariff man.’ He’s proud of it. ... It’s bad news for the party. It’s bad news for the free market.”
Just last week, the sprawling network led by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch announced the creation of several political action committees focused on policy – including one devoted to free trade – to back Republicans or Democrats who break with Trump’s trade policies. A powerful force in Republican politics, the network is already a year into a “multi-year multimillion dollar” campaign to promote the dangers of tariff and protectionist trade policies.
The Chamber of Commerce, too, is in the early phases of disentangling itself from the Republican Party after decades of loyalty. The Chamber, which spent at least $29 million largely to help Republicans in the 2016 election, announced earlier this year that it would devote more time and attention to Democrats on Capitol Hill while raising the possibility of supporting Democrats in 2020.
Few expect the Chamber or business-backed groups such as the Koch network to suddenly embrace Democrats in a significant way. But even a subtle shift to withhold support from vulnerable Republican candidates could make a difference in 2020.
Trump’s boundless enthusiasm for tariffs has upended decades of Republican trade policy that favored free trade. It has left the party’s traditional allies in the business world struggling to maintain political relevance in the Trump era.
Trump’s tariffs are taxes paid by American importers and are typically passed along to their customers. They can provoke retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exports. And they can paralyze businesses, uncertain about where they should buy supplies or situate factories.
“Knowing the rules helps us plan for the future,” said Jeff Schwager, president of Sartori, a cheese company that has had to contend with retaliatory tariffs in Mexico in an earlier dispute.
Trump seems unfazed.
Myron Brilliant, head of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, went on CNBC on Monday to decry “the weaponization of tariffs” as a threat to the U.S. economy and to relations with trading partners.
Trump responded by phoning in to the network to declare, “I guess he’s not so brilliant,” and defend his trade policies.
“Tariffs,” he said, “are a beautiful thing.”
Trump can afford to be confident about his grip over the party: Roughly 9 in 10 rank-and-file Republicans support his performance as president, according to the latest Gallup polling. So Republicans in Congress have been reluctant to tangle with him.