ROBERT COSTA: Whiplash on the economy as President Trump clashes with his critics. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Payroll tax is something that we think about, and a lot of people would like to see that. I’m not looking at a tax cut now. We don’t need it. We have a strong economy.
MR. COSTA: President Trump pinballs on policy and lashes out at the Fed chair and China.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We could be really greatly helped if the Fed would do its job and do a substantial rate cut. Whether it’s good or bad short term is irrelevant. We have to solve the problem with China.
MR. COSTA: And faces a crossroads on guns as he talks with the NRA, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: On Friday the trade war raged. China announced it would soon levy new tariffs on 75 billion (dollars) in U.S. goods. President Trump then demanded that American companies immediately start looking for an alternative to China. That standoff sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbling over 600 points, nearly 2.4 percent. And after the markets closed the president, as usual, punched back, hiking up his tariffs on China. It capped off a turbulent week of presidential feuds and indecision on the economy and other issues right before the president heads to France for that G-7 meeting.
Joining me tonight for our discussion, Anita Kumar, White House correspondent and associate editor for POLITICO; Martha Raddatz, ABC News chief global affairs correspondent and co-anchor of This Week; Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; and Jim Tankersley, tax and economics reporter for The New York Times.
Dan, the president veering from advisor to advisor, idea to idea. What does it all reveal about President Trump?
DAN BALZ: I think what we’ve seen this week – and we’ve had wild weeks before, but there was something particular about this week in the way he went back and forth, and you used the word pinballing in the – in that opening. I think that’s a very good description of it. There is a sense that he doesn’t know his own mind, he doesn’t know what message he wants to put out, and he doesn’t know – other than fighting with China – what kind of policy he really wants. So on the one hand, one day he will say we are looking at tax cuts, the next day he will say we are not. One day he will say the economy is as great as it could be, the next day he’s attacking the Federal Reserve chairman saying the economy should be better and he’s holding it back. So I think this was a week in which he was the main driver of lack of confidence and instability in the economy, and that is a worrisome thing as the rest of the world and corporate executives try to figure out what they want to do about the future.
MR. COSTA: Martha, on that point – the rest of the world – as the president flies to France and prepares for the G-7, what do global leaders see in this president this week?
MARTHA RADDATZ: I think exactly what Dan just described, that –
MR. COSTA: What about the trade war and the economy?
MS. RADDATZ: And you described it, too. The trade war, he’s coming into this meeting. I don’t think he ever really wanted to go to this meeting. It’s his third meeting. I don’t think he was too enthusiastic about it, and now he really can’t go in there and brag about the U.S. economy if they can bring up all these other things and the stock market and – back and forth and back and forth. But I think world leaders are worried. I mean, this does not – this isn’t just about the U.S. economy; this is about the global economy, and he’s about to go smack in the middle of it.
MR. COSTA: Is there going to be a collective response at the G-7 to the global slowdown, or is this America alone?
MS. RADDATZ: I think there – you know, there has to be some sort of global response in some way. Whether it will do any good, you know, I talked to Peter Navarro last Sunday about that and he ticked off all these things that are going to happen, and some sort of global response, and then this will happen, and the trade. But there were a lot of ifs in that, and so far they’re not coming through on those.
MR. COSTA: Global leaders are rattled by the trade war. So are the U.S. markets and the investors. Should they buckle up?
JIM TANKERSLEY: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, policy uncertainty is a thing that we have heard for a long time holds back investment. When you talk to CEOs about, well, where am I going to make that next dollar invested, where am I going to build that next plant, they want to know what the rules of the road are going to be. That’s why we have an international trading system, and the president has really tossed a lot of chaos into that. It’s absolutely true right now that global trade uncertainty is, like, six times larger than it normally is, that the president has gone out and basically every day with the tweets made it possible that the tariff rates will change on China. If you’re – if you’re, like, a retailer in America trying to figure out where you’re going to source, you know, that next shoe, you need to know if there’s going to be tariffs next week or if there’s going to be tariffs next month, and what rate they might be, and no one has any confidence in that. And the president himself seems to not actually know what he wants, other than to win. And so while we wait to see what victory might look like, the economy really is slowing down, and that is the backdrop of all of the pinballing, as you all put it, that we’ve seen this week.
MR. COSTA: Anita, Martha brought up Peter Navarro, the White House trade advisor. When you’re at the White House talking to your White House sources and they’re explaining what happened this week, who do they say is in charge?
ANITA KUMAR: Well, we do hear a lot about Peter’s name. I mean, we hear over and over that he’s impacting the president, influencing the president. Other aides are not onboard with this, right? I mean, he did have a meeting today and the Treasury secretary called into that. He met with his trade advisor, Robert Lighthizer. But all – everybody I’m talking to is saying it’s about Peter Navarro. But really, it’s about the president, right? He doesn’t really know what he wants to do, but I think you have to take a step back and look at where he’s coming from. This is – the economy was the thing that he always had in his pocket for his reelection. He veered off to 20 other topics, but it was always there as the thing that was going to get him through the election. And he’s just really starting to feel like it’s not going to happen.
MR. COSTA: Well, Larry Kudlow, the national economic advisor, you mentioned Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, whether it’s Navarro or President Trump, is anyone countering them in terms of argument inside?
MS. KUMAR: It really feels like to me that the first year or so there were more people in the White House that were pushing back at the president, and now it’s a little bit less so. I remember when they were – we were talking about tariffs when he threatened tariffs for Mexico, remember a few months ago, and everybody was saying, well, there’s no one in the White House that – nobody wanted that, nobody wanted it, but no one really wanted to tell him that either.
MR. COSTA: Dan, what does the president want?
MS. RADDATZ: But he’s so clearly concerned. I mean, they can say we’re not concerned, we’re not concerned, and all you had to do is watch this wild week and knew – and know how concerned Donald Trump is about it. And he may not be getting any pushback on the economy itself, but politically they know this could be big trouble.
MR. COSTA: What is he concerned about, though, Martha? Is it about just the economy or is it his own reelection in 2020?
MS. RADDATZ: Well, I think both because they’re tied together very, very closely. I mean, surely he’s worried about the economy as well, but politically it could be pretty disastrous if the economy tanks. I mean, you see him blaming others, and Donald Trump does that a lot – it’s not my fault, it’s the media’s fault for wanting a recession, he claims; it’s someone else’s fault that this happened, it’s Jerome Powell’s fault. So he’s in that sort of blame game, which is an indicator you know he’s very worried.
MR. COSTA: What does the president want here, though, just to go on what we were just talking about with Martha? Does he want economic war and political war? Is that his message for 2020? Or is he really seeking a deal with China? Does he want to pass the USMCA?
MR. BALZ: Well, he wants the USMCA, the trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. He wants to be reelected. And as Anita said, the economy has been his strongest calling card: lowest unemployment rate in half a century, stock market at various times doing very, very well, other indicators of continued growth. It is – there are signs on the horizon of slowing and perhaps worse, we don’t know. All of that puts at risk his political future. The other thing we know about him is he wanted to have a fight with China. He has talked about that predating his arrival on the political stage, that he felt that we were being taken advantage of on trade agreements, and he wants to go after China. The problem is, he’s gone after an adversary that’s proved as tough and as wily as he is. And there seems to be no way right now that there’s a simple solution to this. And that’s – and that’s the real risk to him.
MR. COSTA: He wants the Federal Reserve to give him a rate cut.
MR. TANKERSLEY: Absolutely. No, he really does believe that the Fed’s policies are holding back growth. And it – we are not growing anywhere close to as fast as he promised we would after the tax cut. He said, at least 3 percent, maybe 4 (percent), maybe 5 (percent). We will be lucky to hit 2.5 percent growth this year. And it could be a lot worse, if the slowdown deepens.
But just to build off what Dan was saying, I think the president really has a different view of the global economy than really any of his predecessors since World War II. He believes that when other countries do well, America does poorly. And he needs to defeat them, almost, in economic warfare. That’s what he wants with China. He wants to bring American companies back from China. Which is a totally different way of looking at the world than business executives have seen for the last 20 years, where they see China as this place we want to sell into, a place where we can source cheaper products.
MR. COSTA: What’s driving China and President Xi Jinping?
MS. RADDATZ: Well, I – (laughs) – I think one of the things you see here – and you can look at President Trump and say, boy, he – maybe he was right about this in the beginning. Maybe we are being taken advantage of. But starting this trade war with wily China, China is just coming right back at him. And, you know, today looking at that – OK, they’re going to do that, I’m going to take it up to 15 percent, then. You just have to say, where does this end? And I don’t think China has a plan for where this ends. And it doesn’t look like we have a plan exactly for where this ends, you know?
MR. BALZ: The other aspect of this is that the president has done this without any support from allies. That is a major criticism, certainly from the Democrats, but from others. That – and including allies – that he’s done things to push allies away at a time when a more united front might have more impact on China. We don’t know that, because we are not seeing that right now. But that’s an element of it, that it’s – you know, it’s America alone. And so far, it has not worked.
MR. COSTA: Where are the Republicans, Anita? Where’s the business community? Are the pressuring the White House?
MS. KUMAR: The business community, Chamber of Commerce, retailers, farmers, and all the people they represent said today they didn’t like this. What – they were frustrated with China, but that he shouldn’t go this route. And he went this route. But, you know, when I go to rallies – Trump rallies – and when I talk to Trump supporters, I know we’ve seen saying this for a couple years, but the number-one thing that they say is not about immigration, it’s not about the economy, it’s that he’s out there fighting for them. And they love it. They eat it up. And they’re going to eat it up and love this until perhaps the economy does go down. So they – you know, they say it’s OK he didn’t get a deal with China, because other presidents would have stopped. And he’s going at it.
MR. COSTA: What’s the reality then, Jim, with this economy? There is a trade war. The markets are up, they’re down. But what’s the reality of the economy?
MR. TANKERSLEY: The reality is we’re still growing. We’re doing better than most of the rest of the developed world. But we’re slowing down. Growth was slower in the last quarter than it had been in the quarter before. It’s not projected to be great in the next quarter. And as the world slows down, we are at risk of catching sort of that almost recessionary fever, if you will. And I think that’s the big worry, is that these trade moves could be disastrous to business investment, which is already kind of plummeting. And if we see more of it, you could see an actual pullback in the American consumer, which has been really carrying the recovery. And if they stop spending money, then growth really could turn south.
MR. COSTA: Does this change the Democratic race for president?
MS. RADDATZ: I don’t know whether it changes the Democratic race for president. I mean, certainly they don’t want to talk about the economy every single second of the Democratic race. That’s not what that’s about. They don’t want to be – they don’t want to be seen as, look, we’re hoping for a recession so Donald Trump will lose. They don’t want to be in that. But I do think this is an issue unlike many others, unlike immigration, unlike North Korea, unlike foreign policy, where people may not feel it. If the economy softens and things turn bad, they will feel it. They may – if they don’t live in a border state, they may not really pay attention to immigration and just say, well, the president’s fighting for us. This is the kind of thing that could really change things.
MR. COSTA: This is – for Vice President Biden, is this part of the reason Democrats continue to rally around him in poll after poll? He’s at least the leader. Senator Warren’s been catching up. Is it because Democratic voters are looking for seasoned hands amid all this instability?
MR. BALZ: I think that’s part of it. I mean, obviously he’s played, and played very hard this week, the electability card. Even so far as in an advertisement touting his standing in the polls as being better than any other Democrat to go against President Trump. But the other element that he’s pushing – both explicitly and implicitly – is I can go in on day one. I know what to do. I’ve got lots of experience. I’ve seen it up close. I’ve dealt with these issues over 40 years, whether in the Senate or as the vice president of Barack Obama. You can count on me to bring stability to a chaotic world. And I think that that, in the long run, is why there are a number of people who – you know, if they – even if they’re not wildly enthusiastic about him, seem to have, for now – and I say that for now – gravitated toward him.
MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to another hot-button topic: gun control. The president has been all over the map this week on where he stands in the wake of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I have an appetite for background checks. We’re going to be doing background checks. We have background checks. But there are loopholes in the background checks. That’s what I spoke to the NRA about yesterday. At the same time, I don’t want to take away people’s Second Amendment rights.
MR. COSTA: Anita wrote in Politico that President Trump has baffled lawmakers and advocacy groups for weeks with his comments. Democrats on the campaign trail have tackled the issue.
SOUTH BEND, INDIANA MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D): (From video.) When the president, even this president, says he’s going to do something about background checks, and then word comes out today that he has consulted with his masters at the NRA and they’ve told him, sorry, you can’t do that, it raises the very simple question: Who’s in charge?
MR. COSTA: Once again, Anita, we’re asking you that question a lot tonight. (Laughter.) Who’s in charge?
MS. KUMAR: Let me tell you what I’m hearing from the White House. It seems as if they’re going back and forth, but – or, that he’s going back and forth. But let me tell you, they – the president – well, he is going back and forth. But the president wants to put out a plan. And he’s getting pressure from both sides, right, obviously. He is so worried about losing his supporters and his base and having gun control that would be very – you know, very strong. And so he’s looking at that, and he’s thinking: What can I do? I want to be the one that after these two mass shootings that comes out with something and finally gets something done. And so he’s looking at more minor things.
His language was very confusing, but what he is going to be doing is putting out a plan when Congress comes back. And it will include changes to background checks. Not, perhaps, universal background checks. He’s not going to say more people should get checked when they’re making a purchase. But he’s going to say that the background check system is flawed, which it is, and that more federal agencies and more states should be putting, you know, records in there. So it’s a way for him to say, hey, I’m doing background checks, but I’m not doing that big background check.
MR. COSTA: But Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, Martha, is on the phone with President Trump this week saying: We don’t support background checks. And they’re one of the biggest supporters of the GOP.
MS. RADDATZ: And I think – I mean, that’s so interesting what the White House is thinking, and how they do that, and can he frame that in a way that doesn’t offend the NRA. I mean, we’ve all heard him talk about it’s the mentally ill. What do we do about that? Do we have an extra background check with that? And how they figure out how to do that, it’s a pretty fine line. But I can see a way they probably could please the NRA and some of the constituents.
MR. COSTA: Is the NRA, Jim, in a weakened position? They’ve gone through spending scandals. Wayne LaPierre has cleaned house in terms of the board at the NRA.
MR. TANKERSLEY: You would expect that if there was a time in the last 10 or so years that the NRA would be weakened, this might be it. But certainly with this occupant of the White House, it doesn’t seem that way. It seems like they still have a lot of influence. They’re able to get him on the phone in a way that a lot of advocacy groups that I talk to wish that they could, probably. So I think that they are definitely not what they were before these scandals hit, but it would be wrong to count them as anything less than a force in Washington right now.
MR. COSTA: What holds President Trump to the issue of gun control? Is it fear of losing the suburban voter in 2020?
MR. BALZ: I think this issue so encapsulates the difficult choice he has in his reelection campaign. On the one hand, he has to hold his base. I mean, that’s, you know, stating the obvious. But he has to hold that base. And anything he might do to suggest he’s moving toward a more encompassing position on gun control puts that at risk. On the other hand, given what happened in 2018, and the degree to which the suburban vote moved against the Republicans, particularly suburban women, not to do something – not to do something on an issue that enjoys overwhelming support among Democrats, independents, and Republicans says to those voters: You don’t count. I’m not listening to you. So he’s going to – you know, he’s going to try to come up with something that threads that needle. But it’s very difficult.
MS. RADDATZ: And frame it in exactly that way, that could possibly please everyone.
MS. KUMAR: He’s getting pushed by so many Republicans. Not his – not his Trump Republicans, but other people saying you have this opportunity, take it to get some of these – pick up some of these other voters and to say I accomplished something. And so he’s getting really pushed very hard.
MS. RADDATZ: But go to those rallies – you go to those rallies and you hear people at those rallies and you talk to those voters, and those voices are in his head as well that we can’t have any sort of gun control, and that would be a huge election issue. And that’s what they’ll tell you it will be, so.
MR. TANKERSLEY: And not to bring everything back to the economy, but these are voters who you would think would be – he would be extra-sensitive to right now at a time when the economy is looking a little weaker because they have big economic concerns. In our polling, it’s like 70 percent of independents who say they’re worried about the national economy, so you would be I would think looking for ways to court those voters in some other way if you’re worried that that economic base is kind of coming out from under them.
MR. COSTA: And who would want this in the Republican Party – Susan Collins, up for reelection in Maine; Cory Gardner, up for reelection in Colorado?
MR. BALZ: You would think that any senator who’s up for reelection in a competitive race would like to see something done on this issue, although they’ve got similar problems.
MR. COSTA: What about Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, up for reelection in Kentucky?
MR. BALZ: Well, we’ll see what he does when they come back. You know, he’s indicated, I guess, that he’s interested in doing something, but how far he will go I don’t know.
MR. COSTA: Is Ivanka Trump a force in this debate inside of the White House?
MS. KUMAR: Well, she is calling members of Congress and she is working on the issue. She met with her father about it. But I’m hearing from people that on Capitol Hill some of these Republicans don’t want her to be involved because, you know, her father calls her – calls her liberal, calls her a Democrat. That’s not someone they actually want to work with when they’re up for reelection; it’s not going to look good for them. So while she is out there doing things, there’s some people that wish she wasn’t.
MR. COSTA: Could this end up as a red flag law, Martha, something that’s a little watered down and –
MS. RADDATZ: Yeah, I mean – I mean, that might be the kind of thing it could end up being, is that – is that red flag law. And sort of just from his rhetoric the past week, that sounds like it would be more likely something he would do.
MS. KUMAR: You know this about the president, but sometimes when he’s out there talking about tax cuts, universal background checks, all different things, he’s waiting to see what people think. He goes and watches television to see what people are saying about it, what are Republicans thinking about it. He wants to kind of put the ideas out there.
MR. COSTA: He’s doing that with the economy as well, payroll tax cut.
MR. TANKERSLEY: Oh yeah, with – the payroll tax cut this week, for a while he was for it and then – and then he said he wasn’t for it, and now we’re not sure. He said that we – you know, he’d be open to other tax cuts too, indexing capital gains for inflation; then he said he was backing away from that.
MR. COSTA: What’s next? In one word, what’s coming next – one or two words – on the economy?
MR. TANKERSLEY: Chaos. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Oh, Jim.
MS. RADDATZ: Oh, Jim.
MR. COSTA: People are watching on a Friday. (Laughter.)
MR. TANKERSLEY: I’m trying to be the positive guy here.
MR. COSTA: Thanks, everybody.
MS. RADDATZ: Do you want to add some words, maybe, to make us feel better? (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: All right. Coming up next on the Washington Week Extra, we’ll speak with reporters from Iowa and Wisconsin about all of these issues. Watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.