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Possible U.S.-China trade war poses political problems for GOP

President Trump this weekend went on the offensive in a series of tweets, tackling a trade war with China and Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, while unleashing harsh words about immigration in the U.S. The comments came as pressure mounts against EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's spending habits. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield joins Hari Sreenivasan with more.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And turning now to politics. This weekend, the temperature in Washington heated up on many fronts — from more talk of a trade war with China to increasingly harsh words about immigration, the president was again on the offensive. Is there a theme to the president's words? NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield is here with some perspective.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Yeah. I think you particularly see it when you watch the changes in the personnel around the White House. One thing that Trump has been totally consistent about for decades is, we're being ripped off by foreigners, they're eating our lunch in every trade deal and they're sending marauding bands of immigrants across our borders to do terrible things. Now that's policy. So you have the idea of a trade war which he says you can win easily coupled with the extremely harsh rhetoric about immigrants – now they're voting illegally all over California and I think the thread is that when you look at who was surrounding the president, Gary Cohn who was a free trader is gone as a key economic adviser replaced by Larry Kudlow thinks that tariffs are terrific. The so-called internationalists like McMaster, the National Security Adviser, Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, they're gone replaced by John Bolton and probably Mike Pompeo, a much more nationalistic in their, in their approach. So the idea that we heard a couple of years ago that well, the grownups will restrain Trump and put him on a more conventional course, no. The people around him now, in fact, are reinforcing those very core instincts of the president.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What are the political consequences of this for House and Senate candidates up for re-election in just a few months?

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    On the issue of trade this is really going to cause and has caused an enormous problem with the Republicans because in the farm states, there are still states where farming is important,where a lot of vulnerable Democratic senators are up for re-election. The idea of a trade war, if it happens, is going to clobber the agricultural economy. And you're talking about states like Montana, Missouri, North Dakota, many others. The problem for the Republicans is broadly speaking, the president is so popular among Republicans that they're caught – they can't attack him, he's the leader of our party but they don't want to see a trade policy like he's announcing become reality. The other thing I think to remember about this is, what are Trump's notions about himself is he's a master negotiator and the art of the deal, to quote one of his books, suggests you begin with a kind of maximalist opening bargaining stance. If that were to work, if his threats result in a deal with China were they curb some of their clearly unfair practices, that's going to be a win. But the question is whether China is amenable to that kind of negotiation that is very much up in the air and could be a huge political problem for the Republicans in the fall.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So in the topic of immigration would that now his actions again be consistent with this sort of thesis that you can read about in his books?

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    I think it's more primal than that. This is something that he has talked about from the time when he was a feature of New York tabloids. And I think one of the things that we saw this week is the other thing about Donald Trump is, he's a showman. Right? He plays to the base. So he goes to an event that's supposed to celebrate the tax cuts and what does he do? He literally throws away the prepared pieces and goes off on one of his harshest rants yet about illegal immigrants. I mean, to me it's like, he knows what gets the crowd going. You know what are we going to do? Build a wall. Who's going to pay for it? Mexico. And went Trump stands up in front of a crowd, it's kind of like a Led Zeppelin reunion. You know you're going to hear "Stairway to Heaven" and you're gonna hear him bash immigrants. He's there.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    While we end up spending tension on this, you point out there are important stories that are under covered.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    I always like to remind people that there's stuff going on behind the headlines. This past week, Judge Stephen Reinhardt died. He's a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal out west, probably the most liberal federal judge in the entire country and the Court of Appeals has been the bane of Conservatives for years because it's fundamentally dominated by liberals. So, there are now eight vacancies on that court, part of 100 federal vacancies that he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are determined to fill as quickly as possible. So much so that McConnell is about to 86, a long standing tradition in the Senate that a home state senator can block a federal judge from his or her state, a blue state blue slot even if it's some of the other party. Now ,you look at what's coming out of those 100 federal vacancies and unless the Democrats take the Senate in the fall they're going to have a fundamental reshaping of the federal bench. And meanwhile, if one of the centrist or liberal Supreme Court justices were to leave, Ruth Bader, Ginsburg Anthony, Kennedy, Trump is going to be able to reshape that court in a way that will be by far the most consequential political action he will have taken in his first term.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The president's also been on the defensive about Scott Pruitt and the challenges that he's facing at the EPA. This weekend he came out with a tweet I am going to read rather quickly, "While security spending was somewhat more than his predecessor, Scott Pruitt has received death threats because of his bold actions that EPA record clean air and water while saving USA billions of dollars. Rent was about market rate, travel expenses OK, Scott is doing a great job." In that length of one tweet, there's at least a half dozen inaccuracies there. But does it even matter?

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    The conduct that Scott Pruitt is under fire for is exactly the kind of conduct that conservatives say that's with big government, swampy bureaucrats do — adding on tripling the security staff and wanting a bullet proof desk and asking the security detail to run sirens so it can get to a restaurant on time and then moving that security guy out when he won't do it. When somebody is on your side, the conduct looks much more defensible than if that guy were on the other side of the political divide. And that's true by the way across the board.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Jeff Greenfield thanks so much.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    OK.

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