Heading home from his recent 12-day, five-country tour of Asia, President Trump teased that a “major” announcement was going to be made at the White House on the day following his return.
“A lot of things are happening on trade and I’ll be announcing pretty much what happened here and also with other meetings, including with China, South Korea and lots of other places,” Trump told reporters at the time. The president added later, “We’ve made some very big steps with respect to trade, far bigger than anything you know.”
Trump didn’t offer specifics about the “big steps” to come or provide any exciting details about the pending announcement, but instead took the opportunity to bemoan America’s “horrible” trade deficits with other nations, a familiar complaint which he then reiterated on Twitter, as one does.
“The United States has to be treated fairly and in a reciprocal fashion. The massive TRADE deficits must go down quickly!” Trump declared. And in another tweet, the U.S. President appeared to put the world at large on notice, stating that: “After my tour of Asia, all Countries dealing with us on TRADE know that the rules have changed.”
Going by the advance hype, it may have been reasonable to expect that a significant, perhaps even game-changing global trade policy announcement was about to be unveiled by the White House; likely one concerning the increasingly tense economic relationship between the United States and countries of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, or almost certainly given its sweeping nature, one providing some much-needed clarification about “how the rules have changed” from the viewpoint of the Trump administration.
But no. In typically haywired fashion these days, instead of a wonky policy announcement fleshing out the specific nature of America’s future trade engagement with the Asia-Pacific region or the U.S. administration’s stance on viability of the multilateral global trading system, what took place instead was a lot of fatuous braggadocio mixed with a jumble of patently erroneous nonsense, now best remembered for a silly, meme-worthy break in the hurriedly delivered speech, when a clearly jet-lagged President Trump drank awkwardly from a misplaced water bottle.
Reading from a teleprompter, Trump unsurprisingly declared his Asia trip “a tremendous success,” personally taking credit for landing long pre-arranged commercial deals that he fancifully claimed could eventually amount to a trillion dollars worth of U.S. exports – a figure he appeared to unironically suggest could effectively offset America’s merchandise trade imbalance at a single stroke – while also supposedly persuading Asian countries to renegotiate better trade deals that in future will treat the United States more equitably.
Although Trump highlighted his insistence to regional partners about the importance of “free and reciprocal” trade and confidently boasted that his message “has resonated” throughout the region, in truth he actually failed to emerge with a commitment from any Asian country to significantly alter their current economic relationship with the U.S. or rescind any of the barriers to trade that allegedly have disadvantaged American exporters.
In the nearly half-hour speech, which came as Trump openly fumed at insufficiently positive coverage of his trip, the U.S. president outlined his efforts in a country-by-country rundown that mainly doled out unqualified praise for those nations and leaders who flattered him the most egregiously with opulent receptions or had expressed a suddenly keen interest in future military procurement.
Framing his purported accomplishments in terms of correcting the “previous mistakes” of unspecified predecessors and following through on his glib “America First” promises to blue-collar voters in marginal constituencies, Trump’s master-class in freewheeling self-aggrandizement was long on superlatives and hyperbole, but almost entirely lacking in any substance whatsoever.
Here, for example, is the pitiful level to which our discourse on trade has now plummeted in the Trump era, wherein the U.S. president apparently channels his inner teenage “Mean Girl” to tweet: “The failing @nytimes hates the fact that I have developed a great relationship with World leaders like Xi Jinping, President of China.” Following this puerile outburst, Trump then further tweeted: “They should realize that these relationships are a good thing, not a bad thing. The U.S. is being respected again. Watch Trade!”
Is it any wonder that none of the Asian countries that Trump visited on his tour were willing to commit to engaging in new bilateral trade talks with the U.S.? To the contrary, the remaining 11 nations involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, including Canada and Japan, used the opportunity to express their commitment to a diametrically opposite, multilateral trade vision by announcing they were collectively moving on with the regional free trade pact without the United States.