Trump Can Battle China or Expand the Economy. He Can’t Do Both.

Date: Wednesday, August 28, 2019
Source: The New York Times

LONDON — As President Trump intermittently escalates and moderates his trade war with China, his conflicting signals reflect a reality that limits his actions: He can try to sever the deeply intertwined American commercial relationship with China, or he can prod economic growth to assuage the fears of investors around the planet.

But he cannot do both at the same time.

Mr. Trump need not rely on the testimonials of economists to deduce this. He can disregard the admonitions of news outlets he derides as fake news. He can simply consult the one source whose verdicts he tends to celebrate: the stock market.

Among those who control money, portents of further trade hostilities between the United States and China, the two largest economies on earth, have proved an impetus to sell with abandon while amplifying talk of recession. Intimations of a deal avoiding further animosity reverberate as a clarion call to buy, sending share prices higher while easing worries about a potential global economic downturn.

Mr. Trump often appears caught between competing impulses that pull markets — and his China policy — in opposite directions.

Talk of a trade deal with China makes for happy stock markets and retirement account statements that Americans open up to learn that they are, also happily, richer. For a president seeking re-election next year, this option holds appeal.

Thunderous threats of fresh tariffs on Chinese goods and the forging of a new order in which American industry forsakes China may damage share prices and shrink economic growth prospects. But it brings plaudits from Mr. Trump’s most ardent political base — nationalists who portray the trade war as a tough but necessary piece of business, the sort of action evaded by the cowards who resided at the White House before.

The latest evidence for this state of affairs came in recent days, as Mr. Trump angrily reacted to China’s announcement of retaliatory tariffs of 10 percent on some $75 billion worth of American exports.

On Friday, the president unleashed furious tweets threatening China with pain. He vowed to raise tariffs on $550 billion of Chinese goods. He declared that China’s president, Xi Jinping, whom he had previously called a “good man,” was an “enemy.” And he commanded American companies to abandon China and start making their products in the United States.

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