It is not surprising that so many Americans believe President Trump has spent the past year erecting tariff walls around the United States. From Trump’s bombastic, anti-trade rhetoric to media’s and social media’s conflation of that rhetoric with real protectionist actions, hardly a day has passed without publication of an analysis or editorial about how especially protectionist this administration has been. The facts are quite different.
Despite promising 45 percent duties on imports from China, 35 percent duties on re-imports from Mexico, tighter restrictions to limit access to U.S. government procurement markets to U.S. firms and workers, requirements that oil pipeline builders use only American-made steel, and more, the Trump administration has not undertaken any of those actions. There has been no discretionary protectionism imposed by President Trump. None. Not yet anyway.
Certainly, President Trump’s instincts are protectionist. He’s already inflicted incalculable damage by withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, playing loose with his aggrandized sense of U.S. indispensability to the trading system, and deliberately throwing sand in the gears of the World Trade Organization’s Dispute Settlement Body. His view of trade as a zero-sum contest played between national monoliths (i.e., Team America vs. Team China), where winning means achieving a trade surplus by way of policies that maximize exports and minimize imports, certainly provides fertile ground for protectionism to take root and flourish. But when it comes to actually imposing tariffs or other trade restrictions, so far Trump has been remarkably circumspect. Why?
First of all, the president’s trade policy actions are constrained legally, politically, and practically. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress, not the president, authority to regulate foreign trade. However, at various points and for various reasons over the past century, Congress delegated—through legislation that became statute—some of its authority to the president. For example, the president can impose tariffs without need of congressional action or consent under several different laws.