Accuracy in Media

Criticism of President Trump’s moves on trade generally sticks to certain themes, as demonstrated Wednesday by three articles on the market gyrations that occurred on Tuesday after a Trump tweetstorm on his recent G-20 dinner with President Xi Jinping of China.

The top theme is that chaos, not reason of any sort, rules Trump’s trade negotiation strategy. He doesn’t know what he is doing or what he wants to accomplish. He engages in give and take with other world leaders, then doesn’t seem to understand what they said or what it means in terms of policy.

“’Chaos breeds chaos’: Trump’s erratic and false claims roil the globe. Again,” wrote the Washington Post in a headline over its story by Damian Paletta and Philip Rucker.

The New York Times’ story’s main headline read, “Trump Warns China That He’s ‘Tariff Man,’ Spooking Stock Investors,” but its subhead followed the theme: “Stocks, which rallied Monday on the potential for a truce in the United States-China trade war, began a downward spiral on Tuesday as confusion set in about whether an agreement had truly been reached.”

Stocks sank on Tuesday, Times reporters Matt Phillips and Alan Rappeport wrote, “as President Trump threatened China with further tariffs, just days after the two countries agreed to a cease-fire in their escalating economic conflict.” Trump’s tweets, one of which included him referring to himself as a “tariff man,” “deepened the murkiness surrounding the trade agreement,” they wrote.

Slate pointed out Trump has used these tactics before and has a “debatably improved North American Free Trade Agreement” to show for it.

The “basic routine” that has “emerged,” wrote Jordan Weissman in “Trump’s ‘Tariff Man’ Rant Was Nonsense, but Thankfully an Actual Adult is Leading Trade Talks With China,” goes like this:

“Representatives of each country would meet. They’d make progress on a key issue. Or maybe they wouldn’t. But in the meantime, Donald Trump would provide color commentary, usually by tweeting or ranting about Canada. He frothed obsessively about Ottawa’s dairy protectionism and poked fun at imaginary shoe smugglers from Ontario. After striking a preliminary two-day deal with Mexico, he delivered a surreal press conference where he threatened to cut Canada out of the final pact entirely while targeting its car exports with tariffs.”

The writer would not say the tactic worked as planned.

The “outbursts created the appearance that he really, truly might be about to scrap NAFTA entirely – or that he would at least try to, if discussions didn’t go his way,” Weissman wrote. But in the end, everybody reached a deal, one that made a few significant changes to NAFTA but left most of its basic architecture in place.”

And even though an agreement was reached, it was not because “the president was publicly fulminating like a drunk Jets fan watching the game on Sunday,” but because his trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, “pressed ahead with somewhat normal negotiations.”

It wasn’t normal negotiations that brought Canada back to the table. It was, as Reuters pointed out in a story at the time, pressure from a business community north of the border that sells 75 percent of its exports in the United States.

Whatever the reason, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went from saying no deal was better than the deal Mexico and the U.S. had worked out to rushing a trade delegation to Washington to get back in the game.

Weissman said it was hard to tell whether the good-cop/bad-cop routine was intentional, whether a “mad-man theory of international statecraft” was at work or whether Trump wanted to kill NAFTA, but his aides talked him out of it.

“But it ended in a deal,” Weissman wrote. “And if you squint, it seems like the administration is getting ready to repeat the same basic song and dance with China.”

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