President Donald Trump always wants to be the decider — even if alienates top aides, Republican lawmakers, or half the business community.
Over the past year, he’s repeatedly gone with his gut and trusted his own judgment over advice from experts, including those on his own staff, on pulling out of the Paris climate accord, banning transgender recruits from the military, and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
The same pattern is now playing out in Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports over the public objection of his some of own advisers, senior Republican leaders and top business lobbying groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable.
Until economic adviser Gary Cohn announced his resignation on Tuesday, free trade advocates had hoped they could slow-walk the tariffs—which still need to be written after Trump made a surprise announcement at a televised meeting with industry executives last week—and buy time to push Trump in a different direction.
But Trump doesn’t seem to be open to slow-walking of any kind. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Wednesday said the tariffs were on track to be finalized and released later this week.
Staffers inside the West Wing and close advisers to the White House said they don’t see many hints of Trump backing down.
“He did campaign on this. He has said American workers have been disadvantaged by the trade deals of the past, and he has had dozens and dozens of meetings at the White House with members to talk this through,” said Marc Short, White House director of legislative affairs. “It is hard to be surprised by it.”
While it’s often difficult to change the president’s mind on key issues, people who have been involved in White House policy debates say they’ve had some success in convincing Trump to moderate his final decision.
Already, the president has suggested he’s open to exempting Canada and Mexico from any tariffs, contingent on renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, an idea Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reiterated on Tuesday at a hearing on Capitol Hill. Now that’s free-traders best hope to make the tariffs less severe.
“I feel like that is where this is headed. Let’s get this targeted for the bad actors and not start a trade war with Mexico,” said Stephen Moore, an informal economic adviser to the White House and distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “If your issue is with cheating and stealing, then let’s target the policy to the stealers.”
Trump has repeatedly said he’s serious about addressing trade deficits with protectionism, blaming previous administrations for making poor deals. At a bilateral meeting alongside Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven on Tuesday, Trump threatened to put a 25 percent tariff on European cars. “I’m here to protect our workers,” he said. “We’ve been mistreated as a country for many years.”
Many Republican lawmakers and congressional aides privately have been trying to blame Peter Navarro, director of the White House’s Trade and Manufacturing Policy office and one of the White House’s leading advocates for protectionism, for the timing and seeming suddenness of the tariffs announcement.
“Some people want to make Peter the easy punching bag,” said one former campaign official. “But the truth is, this is about the president. This is what he believes.”
No one should expect Trump to do a 180-degree turn on a trade, the official added, since trade is an issue that has long animated him and helped him win the 2016 campaign.
“There is a chance Trump might not have won election if he had not talked so extensively about trade,” Moore said. “He crashed through the blue wall of Rust Belt states with his trade talk because the Democrats had lost touch with those voters, and Trump was speaking their language.”
The same pattern – of Trump letting aides make their power plays before ultimately going with his instinct – has played out on other major policy decisions.
On his ban of transgender military recruits, White House lawyers and officials tried to slow down Trump’s decision by offering to study it in great detail until Trump got frustrated by what he saw as micromanaging and just announced the ban himself over Twitter.
The decision to move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem followed a similar path.
Advisers warned and warned about the geopolitical implications of trying to negotiate a Middle East peace deal amid such a move. Aides even proposed temporarily keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv while such negotiations took place as a compromise. Ultimately, Trump prevailed, and Vice President Pence promised to have the Jerusalem-based embassy open by 2019 during a recent visit to Israel.
Pulling out of the Paris climate deal offered the most dramatic example of letting aides inside the White House go to war over policy before Trump ultimately went with his original idea.
Top administration officials – from members of the National Economic Council to senior leaders at the State Department – spent nearly five months trying to convince Trump to backtrack on his campaign promise to “cancel” the landmark Paris climate deal, which committed nearly every nation on the planet to setting domestic targets to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
Administration officials set up phone calls between Trump and worried world leaders, raised concerns that a withdrawal would greatly damage relations with key allies, recruited fossil fuel companies to make the case that they could live with the deal and organized last-minute internal meetings to debate the merits of the agreement – coalition-building that seems reminiscent of the free-traders attempts to weaken Trump’s tariffs idea.
Some in the White House thought Trump might budge. The president even showed occasional signs of openness to remaining in the agreement. But in the end, nobody could change Trump’s mind, and the president announced his intention to withdraw in June.
There are a handful of examples of Trump breaking with a campaign policy promise. The most notable is Trump’s pledge to label China a currency manipulator. The president declined to make the move in part because he believes maintaining a relationship with China is essential to combating aggression from North Korea.
Yet on his tariff decision, Trump seems intent on moving ahead.
“We’re going to straighten it out. We’ll do it in a very loving way. A loving, loving way,” Trump said about the tariffs on Tuesday. “We have to straighten it out. We really have no choice.”
Andrew Restuccia contributed reporting