From the less than rhetorically splashy and indeed wonkishly dry Congressional Research Service comes an unsettling passage of swashbuckling portent:
The United States Constitution gives Congress the power to impose and collect taxes, tariffs, duties, and the like, and to regulate international commerce. While the Constitution gives the President authority to negotiate international agreements, it assigns him no specific power over international commerce and trade. Through legislation, however, Congress may delegate some of its power to the President, such as the power to modify tariffs under certain circumstances.
Which, more than a dozen times over the last 100 years, is precisely what Congress has done. (Notwithstanding outraged Republican cries of Obamian usurpation, the ceding of congressional to executive authority has been a long, bipartisan operation.) Paul Krugman summarizes the above's, unilateral potential under existing legislation:
[President Trump] can restrict imports if such imports "threaten to impair the national security"; he can impose tariffs "to deal with large and serious United States balance-of-payments deficits"; he can modify tariff rates when foreign governments engage in "unjustifiable" policies.
Again, and as Krugman emphasizes, it will be the "executive himself ... who determines whether such conditions apply" -- not the incoming Republican Congress (which, under the almighty Republican Trump, is at any rate likely to proceed as rubber-stamping Banana Republicans), and not the federal courts, which, as the CRS empirically observes, "will probably not review the reasoning behind a President’s determination that executive action is warranted." Such actions are usually deemed by the courts to lie within the jurisdiction of politics, not the judiciary.
Thus Trump already possesses the legal means to unilaterally launch trade wars; he alone, under the guidance of his ghastly benightedness, may decide what constitutes imported threats to national security; what, in terms of tariffs, is "unjustifiable" by others; and whatever trade-deficit-reducing tariffs he chooses to impose. For a demagogic globalus ignoramus who deliberately remains out of touch with, say, what China is doing with its currency, the prospect of such presidential autonomy is harrowing indeed.
From means we move to motive. "There’s an obvious incentive for Mr. Trump to make a big show," writes Krugman, "of doing something to fulfill campaign promises" -- especially those centered in his turgid, simplistic rhetoric on the evils of existing trade agreements. "And if this creates international conflict, that’s actually a plus when it comes to diverting attention from collapsing health care and so on" -- from, that is, Trump's "radically antiworker domestic agenda."
It is here that Krugman's NYT op-ed just as harrowingly intersects with that of another this morning, Sergei Guriev's "In Russia, It's Not the Economy, Stupid." Writes the European Bank's chief economist:
Thanks largely to the government’s extensive control over information, Mr. Putin has rewritten the social contract in Russia. Long based on economic performance, it is now about geopolitical status. If economic pain is the price Russians have to pay so that Russia can stand up to the West, so be it.
For megalomaniacal reasons that lie altogether outside the American political tradition, Mr. Trump unblushingly sees Mr. Putin as his leadership model, along with Mussolini and other dictatorial goons. Hence little imagination is required to predict that President Trump will emulate President Putin's populist project of diverting the public's attention from self-imposed "economic pain" (via trade wars) by braying about the higher cause of America's reemergent "geopolitical status" -- of the U.S. as the greatly remade puppeteer of the world's subordinate players.
All that Trump would lack in his attention-diverting trade wars is Putin's "extensive control over information." In recalling, however, the American media's "patriotic" lap-doggedness in George W. Bush's ramp-up to the Iraq war, one wonders if Trump's constitutional absence of government information control is a presidential distinction with little difference from Putin's.
Yesterday I expressed hope -- confidence, in fact -- that enlightened voices of protest will persuasively expose and ultimately take down the Trump administration. There is, of course, no voice more essential in this most honorable of pursuits than that of the Fourth Estate. It seems rather flaccid to say that I also trust it will, by and large, live up to its First Amendment obligations of scrutiny, but I'm afraid that's all I've got: trust that it will, and hope that I'm not wrong.