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Politics

With both Iran and China, Trump skates to the edge of going too far

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(LAT)

President Trump revels in risk.

As a businessman, he made deals that put his fortune in peril, most notably in overpaying for Atlantic City casinos that brought him to bankruptcy.

As president, he’s adopted a consistent approach to major issues: He manufactures a crisis to shake up the status quo, then pulls back at the last minute to claim a deal, sometimes on terms less favorable than he could have had before the crisis began.

This week brought two examples of skating on the edge — with China and with Iran.

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THE CHINA TRADE

China’s entry into the world trading system, formalized by its joining the World Trade Organization in December 2001, stands as a perfect test case of classic economic theory — and its limits.

As economists predicted, expanded trade brought huge growth to China’s economy, enriching the country and lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It also benefited U.S. consumers and companies, with goods as varied as inexpensive sneakers and high-end iPhones, as well as vastly expanded farm exports.

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But those widespread benefits came with a cost that many economists underestimated — extensive job losses in the U.S., especially in manufacturing. Those losses, in turn, helped set the stage for Trump’s rise to power.

Trump took office knowing he wanted to do something to shift the economic balance between the U.S. and China, but he’s never made clear exactly what.

His advisors fall into two camps: One group wants to tweak trade rules to improve the economic position of U.S. companies but otherwise leave the status quo intact. The other, more worried about China as a rival power, would accept long-term economic pain in order to “decouple” China from the international system and thwart its rise.

Trump veers between the two, siding with the hard-liners until stock markets begin to slide, then seeking to reassure investors — and restive Republican lawmakers — that he won’t let a trade war get out of hand and risk a recession.

As Doyle McManus wrote, Trump has whims and impulses, but no overall strategy. He also deeply holds some beliefs that fly in the face of a century of economic evidence — mostly notably his insistence that higher tariffs, the taxes imposed on imports, provide a net benefit to the U.S. economy.

In the last couple of weeks, the contradictions in his policy have come to the surface.

Two weeks ago, negotiators for both Washington and Beijing thought they had a deal to deescalate their trade war. But then China walked back some elements of the putative agreement, the U.S. responded with new, higher tariffs, and by the end of last week, as Robyn Dixon and Don Lee wrote, the U.S.-China relationship threatened to skid out of control.

This week, the situation worsened. China countered with more tariffs of its own, and Trump moved to ban Huawei, the giant Chinese telecom firm, from the U.S. market.

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As Lee reported, the scope of the administration’s action could threaten the future of Huawei, one of the crown jewels of China’s economic rise.

But Trump has left the central question unanswered: Does the U.S. deliberately want to damage a key part of the Chinese economy, as many Chinese fear? Or does Trump simply see the move against Huawei as a bargaining chip?

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping could hash out a deal next month at the annual Group of 20 economic summit. Until then — and maybe even after — we won’t know how close to the economic brink Trump could go.

THE IRAN BLUSTER

Even as Trump has continued to escalate the trade war with China, he seemed to pull back this week from the edge of confrontation with Iran.

Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, has long advocated aggressive moves to bring down Iran’s Islamic regime, even at the risk of war.

Earlier this month, Bolton announced that the U.S. was dispatching the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to waters near Iran. Then this week, officials told reporters about Pentagon contingency plans to send as many as 120,000 troops to the region if Iran attacked American interests.

On Wednesday, as Tracy Wilkinson and Nabih Bulos wrote, the State Department ordered several hundred U.S. personnel to leave Iraq, citing fears that Iranian-backed militias in that country might target Americans. The rise in tensions came as several oil tankers in the Persian Gulf were damaged by explosions, the source of which remain uncertain.

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But while Trump has willingly plunged into economic battles, he’s shown no taste for actual wars. He’s tried to pull back existing U.S. deployments in places like Afghanistan and has repeatedly denounced former President George W. Bush for his Iraq policy.

By week’s end, administration officials, shielded by the usual rules of anonymity, were telling reporters that Trump had made clear to his advisors that he did not want a war with Iran.

Publicly, he said he was “sure that Iran will want to talk soon,” talks that Bolton has neither forecast nor sought.

NORTH KOREA MISSILES

North Korea stands as the prototype for Trump’s style of creating a crisis, then declaring it solved. But Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, hasn’t made that easy for Trump.

The North Koreans have conducted three tests of short-range ballistic missiles in recent weeks. The White House has sought to downplay them. But as David Cloud reported, the new missile appears aimed at evading U.S. defenses and could pose a threat to U.S. forces in the region.

The missiles seem closely based on a Russian design. How North Korea got that remains a mystery.

THE KEYSTONE STATE, STILL KEY

Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, both head to Pennsylvania over the next few days, as Janet Hook and Eli Stokols reported.

The two have both focused on the state, which is central to Democratic hopes of winning in 2020. And they’ve focused on each other, largely ignoring the other 22 Democratic candidates.

Biden continues to lead all polls of the Democratic field, but the race is far from over, as potential rivals continue to jockey.

In the last couple of weeks, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been on a roll, as Hook wrote.

The Massachusetts senator has been climbing in several polls as she steadfastly sticks to her campaign plan and rolls out one policy idea after another. But she still faces big obstacles in her 2020 presidential bid.

One of the biggest is her rival on the left, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has championed Medicare for all as a key campaign platform. But as Noam Levey wrote, Democrats have been moving away from Medicare for all as the political and practical problems with the plan have begun to come into focus.

More incremental ideas, such as Biden’s proposal to allow anyone to buy into Medicare, have gained ground. Those ideas may be less sweeping than Sanders’ vision, but they still stand far to the left of anything Democrats even proposed during President Obama’s tenure, evidence of how far the debate on healthcare has shifted.

FLORIDA, TOO

Pennsylvania isn’t the only state to watch for 2020. Trump also has to play defense in Florida, which he’s been doing aggressively, as Noah Bierman wrote.

Florida is one state where foreign policy sometimes has a big impact on domestic politics. The administration’s tough line on Venezuela is, in part, aimed at appealing to emigre voters, Cubans and other Latin Americans, who dislike the government of Nicolas Maduro.

But the administration’s troubled relationship with Puerto Rico has created an opening that Democrats hope to exploit.

DIDN’T GET THE MEMO

Two more candidates joined the already overstuffed Democratic list of candidates.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock entered the race, pitching his ability to win in a Western state — a theme already embraced by Colorado’s John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet.

And New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio jumped in, too, pitching — well, it’s not clear what he’s pitching, other than being an ambitious white, male politician in a race already amply supplied with those.

The two newest entrants may not have time to meet even the very low bar for inclusion in next month’s first candidate debates.

VOTE BY PHONE?

In an era of worries about ballot security, the idea of letting people vote by phone might seem singularly ill timed. The notion scares the daylights out of many security experts.

Even so, Evan Halper reported, ardent technology advocates continue to push the idea. They’ve gotten pilot projects off the ground in Denver and West Virginia and hope to spread rapidly from there.

IMMIGRATION POLITICS

Trump unveiled a long-discussed immigration plan Thursday. As Bierman and Molly O’Toole wrote, the plan doesn’t deal with people already in the country illegally, a key requirement for getting any Democratic support, and also doesn’t reduce overall immigration numbers, which is the central demand from conservative advocates of immigration restriction.

Instead, the proposal, designed by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, would boost money for border security and cut family reunification in favor of what the White House calls “merit-based” immigration. It has little support from either party.

Meanwhile, internal documents obtained by The Times show that the administration wants to get Border Patrol agents more involved in screening asylum requests, O’Toole reported.

STANDOFF OVER DOCUMENTS

As Chris Megerian wrote, the White House stiff-armed the House Judiciary Committee on more document requests regarding the Russian investigation, a further escalation of its refusal to cooperate with congressional probes.

And Democrats opened a new front, Jennifer Haberkorn wrote, demanding that Atty. Gen. William Barr hand over documents on the decision not to defend Obamacare in court.

ABORTION POLITICS

Alabama lawmakers voted to ban all abortions in the state, without exceptions for cases of rape or incest. The goal, Jenny Jarvie wrote, is to get the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision that guaranteed abortion rights nationwide.

But as David Savage wrote, the justices are not eager to overturn Roe — at least not soon. The court’s conservative majority seems likely to chip away at abortion rights, but not wipe them out in one swoop.

As Haberkorn wrote, the Alabama law and similar moves in some other conservative states go too far for many Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, both of whom made statements Thursday repeating their long-standing support for rape and incest exceptions to any abortion ban.

ANOTHER CONSERVATIVE JUDGE

The Senate confirmed Kenneth Kiyul Lee, Trump’s pick for a California seat on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, over the objections of California’s two senators, Sarah Wire wrote.

A FINAL ACCOUNTING

Anna Phillips reported that Trump’s ex-EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, blew $124,000 on unjustified first- and business-class travel, according to the agency’s inspector general.

Pruitt made 40 trips, at a cost to taxpayers of $985,037, for himself, his staff and an unusually large security team between March 1 and Dec. 31, 2017, the audit found. He frequently flew first class, inflating the cost. His staff justified that by saying he would be harassed by angry citizens if he flew coach.

Pruitt resigned under fire last July.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration 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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