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Trump makes policy on the fly; trade disputes, family separations show the consequences

(LAT)

President Trump’s way of making decisions can charitably be described as on the fly.

At times, that leads to sudden changes of course, as with this week’s announcements on European trade.

In some cases, the result can be a crash that damages many lives. This week featured that outcome, as well, as officials struggled to reunite hundreds of immigrant families separated at the border.

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TRADING POSITIONS

Just a week ago, Trump described Europe as a “foe” on international trade and repeated threats to impose tariffs on imported cars and auto parts — a move strongly opposed not only by foreign governments, but also U.S. automakers.

Wednesday brought a different tone: Trump was all smiles after a meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission. In a Rose Garden ceremony, the two announced a cease-fire in the trade war, with Trump notably dropping the threat of new tariffs, as Don Lee wrote.

What had changed? Nothing, really, except for the president’s disposition.

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Trump does have a strongly held attitude toward trade — he’s skeptical of it. He sees trade as a zero-sum game, not a process in which both sides end up wealthier, as most economists view it. But how that attitude translates into policy can turn suddenly and unpredictably.

Before Juncker’s arrival, officials were unsure if Trump would even meet with the visiting European. The day Juncker got to D.C., however, the administration unveiled its plan to bail out farmers hurt by trade disputes with China. The rollout went poorly, as Lee and Tracy Wilkinson wrote. Republican senators from farm states roundly panned the $12 billion in subsidies as “welfare” for constituents who wanted only to be able to sell their goods on the market.

“America’s farmers don’t want to be paid to lose, they want to win by feeding the world,” said Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse.

Perhaps Trump sensed the need for a new talking point or perhaps he merely changed his mind about fighting a trade war with Europe while also conducting one with China. Perhaps he listened more to Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin or economic advisor Larry Kudlow, who are both skeptical of trade wars, and less to Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who is more hawkish.

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Whatever his motivation, when Trump sat down with Juncker, he readily accepted a European proposal to avoid any new tariffs. In return, he got little more than an agreement to reopen transatlantic trade talks, the so-called TTIP negotiations, that had petered out late in 2015, as the onset of the election season chilled President Obama’s interest in new trade deals.

As Eli Stokols wrote, the main talking point Trump seized on, and repeated at length Thursday in a trip to the Midwest, was the promise that Europe would buy more America soybeans, to some extent making up for the loss of sales to China.

“Basically, we opened up Europe,” he claimed to a farm group in Iowa.

That’s untrue: Europe wasn’t closed. Last year, the U.S. sold $1.6 billion in soybeans to Europeans, making the continent the second largest import region behind China.

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Europeans almost certainly will buy more U.S. soy this year, but that was no more true after Wednesday’s announcement than before it. As European officials noted to reporters after Trump and Juncker made their statements, the EU, itself, doesn’t buy soybeans. Neither do individual European governments.

Juncker’s pledge that Europeans would buy more simply reflected market reality: U.S. prices have dropped because China’s tariffs have sharply cut demand for U.S. produce. At the same time, prices of soybeans from Brazil, the other big exporter, have shot up. So of course, European farmers will now buy less from Brazil and more from the U.S. Midwestern farm incomes will still suffer because they will be selling at a discount.

Juncker also pushed the idea that Europe will buy more American liquefied natural gas, offsetting its current dependence on gas imports from Russia. That may happen, but big sales will require building new facilities for LNG, which could take years.

The week’s events illustrated a central fact about the administration’s trade policy: Billions of dollars in commerce can shift based largely on the president’s mood and which of his conflicting advisors he’s listening to at any given point.

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REUNIFYING SOME — BUT NOT ALL — FAMILIES

The administration’s immigration policies showed a different impact of on-the-fly policymaking.

As with trade, Trump has a basic attitude toward immigration — he doesn’t like it. And also as with trade, the president has tremendous discretionary authority under existing laws. Previous presidents have mostly used that power sparingly.

As Jazmine Ulloa wrote, nine weeks have passed since Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions’ so-called zero tolerance policy began to show its impact on people apprehended crossing the border illegally,

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Under zero tolerance, all those caught would be prosecuted for illegal entry. Although that offense is a misdemeanor, and immigrants convicted almost always are sentenced to time served, the consequences for families caught at the border were huge — the misdemeanor charges provided the basis for taking children away from their parents.

Family separations began to happen in large numbers in late May. They only lasted a few weeks before Trump, bowing to political pressure, canceled the plan.

At that point, administration officials had little idea of what to do next. The Department of Health and Human Services, which had custody of the children, had never made plans to reunite them with the parents. The Department of Homeland Security, which includes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol, had no information about which parents went together with which kids.

Ever since, the administration has been trying to clean up the results of a policy adopted “without forethought to reunification or keeping track of people,” as federal District Judge Dana Sabraw put it.

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Thursday was the deadline Sabraw had set for the government to return all the roughly 2,500 children who had been taken from their parents. By day’s end, government lawyers said 1,442 children had been reunited with parents, and another 378 had either been turned over to sponsors, who are often relatives, reunited in other ways or had turned 18, as Paloma Esquivel and Esmeralda Bermudez wrote.

That left hundreds of children still in government custody with uncertain prospects. More than 400 parents have been deported already, most without their children. In other cases, the government has released the parents and doesn’t know where they are.

Once the families are reunited, many are being released on immigration parole — exactly the policy that officials followed before “zero tolerance” was put in place. Other families, however, are being held in immigration detention. Who gets held and who gets released and why remains unclear, according to immigration lawyers. Government officials have declined to say.

‘WHY DOES HE DO THOSE THINGS?’

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Trump is clearly more comfortable with Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo than with his predecessor, Rex Tillerson. And as Pompeo demonstrated this week, he’s far more willing to aggressively defend Trump in public.

As Tracy Wilkinson wrote, Pompeo spent nearly three hours being questioned by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The gist of his message was that the administration’s actual policies are very tough on Russia and that Trump should get credit for those policies. Reminded repeatedly by senators of both parties that Trump often undermines those policies in his public statements, Pompeo repeatedly deflected the questions.

Trump is “clearly in charge,” he insisted, so the policies reflect what the president wants.

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Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a frequent Trump critic who is retiring after this year, was having none of it.

“It’s the president who causes people to have concerns,” Corker said. He listed a series of statements Trump had made this month that he said appeared “purposefully” designed to “create tremendous distrust in this nation and our allies.”

“Why does he do those things?” he demanded.

Pompeo did not answer.

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The administration did announce that an invitation they had made just last Friday to Russian President Vladimir Putin for a visit to Washington would be postponed until sometime next year. Republicans had made clear they were unhappy with a Putin visit during the midterm election season.

ESCALATING THE RHETORIC ON IRAN

The focus on Russia meant that Pompeo got fewer detailed questions on Iran than he might have, even as both he and Trump sharply turned up the rhetorical volleys.

In a speech Sunday at the Reagan Library, Pompeo blasted Iran’s government as “not normal,” and asked Southern California’s large Iranian American community for support, Sarah Parvini and Melissa Etehad reported.

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Trump then overshadowed his secretary of State’s speech with tweets attacking Iran’s president. The language was much like the “fire and fury” threats that Trump lobbed at North Korea almost exactly a year ago.

As Wilkinson noted, the Korea crisis eventually cooled down, in large part because of intervention by South Korea, which steered both sides toward talks. In the case of Iran, however, U.S. allies in the region, including both Saudi Arabia and Israel, seem to want a confrontation.

Another trouble spot in the region worsened this week as the administration threatened to punish Turkey unless it frees a detained American pastor.

Trump apparently thought he had a deal with Turkish President Recip Erdogan to free the minister, Andrew Brunson. A Turkish court did free him from prison, but ordered him held under house arrest. Gaining Brunson’s freedom has become a major cause for some evangelical Christian groups.

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TRUMP’S FORMER LAWYER FLIPS

Trump used to praise the loyalty of his long-time lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen. No more. As Chris Megerian wrote, Cohen made clear that he has flipped sides when he released a recording he made of part of a conversation with Trump about a payoff to a Playboy model.

Friday, the tensions rose higher. Trump denied Cohen’s reported claim that Trump knew in advance about a meeting his son, Donald Trump Jr., and other campaign officials had with a Russian lawyer in June 2016.

One participant in that meeting was Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who goes on trial starting next week on money laundering and other charges. But don’t expect testimony in his case to produce new revelations about campaign collusion, as Megerian and Eliza Fawcett wrote. Prosecutors have made clear that this case will focus solely on Manafort’s financial dealings.

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Meanwhile, in the House, conservatives introduced an impeachment resolution targeting Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia investigation being conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have both made it clear they they oppose that idea, and it may never even come to a vote.

But the conservatives still have considerable leverage in the House, in part because of the leadership race to succeed Ryan. One of the leaders of the conservative group, Rep. Jim Jordan announced he plans to run for speaker. As Sarah Wire wrote, that puts Jordan in position to challenge California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who is the front-runner for the job but has failed, so far, to nail it down.

White House officials also said that Trump was considering yanking the security clearances of former officials who’ve criticized him.

And a new poll showed that Republicans have soured on the FBI, reflecting Trump’s attacks.

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KAVANAUGH NOMINATION

David Savage has written a series of stories about different aspects of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s judicial record. The latest looks at his views regarding environmental cases. On the Supreme Court, Kavanaugh could give conservatives the vote they need to rein in EPA rules on climate change.

DEMOCRATS LOOK FOR ANOTHER UPSET

Democrats have racked up a number of special election victories in the past year in solidly Republican territory. The next contest comes Aug. 7 in Ohio, and as Evan Halper wrote, it’s another red seat that’s turned into a tossup race. Also notable, while the left wing of the Democratic Party has gotten a lot of attention, the winners of these races have mostly been moderates.

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LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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David.lauter@latimes.com

@davidlauter


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