Trump

Emergency Exit Strategy

His brand is crisis, so it can be hard to keep abreast of the various calamities President Trump stumbles into or deliberately courts. Now that tensions with Iran seem to have momentarily cooled, another recent episode of Trumpian brinksmanship, closer to home, deserves some attention before we lurch forward into new dangers. 

As you’ve surely heard, but may have already forgotten amid the fog of near-war, three weeks ago, President Trump threatened to declare yet another national emergency at the southern border. If Mexico didn’t sufficiently crack down on cross-border migration, Trump warned, he’d use “the authorities granted to me by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act” to hammer our third largest trading partner—and U.S. consumers—with a series of escalating tariffs on Mexican goods, rising to 25 percent across the board. 

Fortunately, on June 7, three days before the deadline he’d set, President Trump called off the trade war. But, Trump warned, he “can always go back” to raising tariffs if he’s not happy.

The notion that the president can, with the stroke of a pen, upend peaceful trade relations and implement a massive tax hike ought to sound the alarm about Trump’s expansive view of presidential emergency powers. Are they as vast as the president claims, and, if so, what can Congress do to rein them in? 

As I argued in Reason magazine recently, our latest Imperial President has aggressively exploited the powers he inherited, but hasn’t been much of an innovator in terms of devising genuinely new schemes for the expansion of executive power. Trump’s use of emergency authorities is the glaring exception to that pattern, the key area in which the “CEO president” has been menacingly entrepreneurial.

We saw this first in February, when President Trump declared a national emergency in order to “build the wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border. The statute Trump invoked, 10 USC § 2808, allows the president to divert funds to “military construction projects” supporting the use of U.S. armed forces in a military emergency. It had been used only twice before, by George H.W. Bush in the run-up to the Gulf War, and by his son in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks—the sort of circumstances it was clearly designed to address. Though past presidents had used emergency powers liberally, before Trump, it apparently hadn’t occurred to anyone that you could use them to snatch funding for a pet project that Congress had repeatedly refused to support. 

The United States (Probably) Won’t Go to War with Iran

For weeks the Trump administration has been issuing warnings about increased attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria by Iranian proxies. Recently the administration revealed that it has satellite imagery of what it says are Iranian paramilitary forces loading missiles onto a small boat. In response, the Pentagon recently presented national security adviser John Bolton and Trump’s national security team with an updated plan that would send 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacks American forces or ramps up its development of nuclear weapons. Though the plans apparently do not include a ground invasion of Iran, what scenarios they might encompass has not yet been revealed. Nor is it entirely clear what sort of Iranian action might trigger a response.

Considering John Bolton’s longstanding calls for a more confrontational approach to Iran and Trump’s desire to squeeze greater concessions from Iran through tougher sanctions and “maximum pressure,” tensions between the United State and Iran are certainly rising. As my colleague John Glaser has pointed out, it would be difficult to design a strategy more likely to lead to “accidental” conflict than the path the Trump administration is pursuing today. Thus, the question on everyone’s mind is: Will there be war? Though the risk is not zero, the smart bet – for now – is that there will not be war.

Though making predictions about complex political outcomes like war is fraught with peril, a reasonable approach is to start by asking two questions. First, how determined is the United States to start, or avoid, a war with Iran? Second, how determined is Iran to start, or avoid, a war with the United States? Though many other factors might be at work, such as what’s at stake for each country, the relative military capabilities of each, and so forth, most of those factors eventually get captured in those two questions. If either country desires war, war is coming. But even if neither seeks war, rising tensions, accidents, and the psychological dispositions of individual leaders could lead to war if both countries don’t take enough steps to avoid it.

So far news reporting suggests that the Trump administration has not yet decided on war, but the signals are certainly mixed. Trump himself has said that “we’re not looking to hurt anybody” and that “I’d like to see them call me” to continue talks. Even Iranian officials don’t think Trump wants war. Speaking on Face the Nation, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said “We don’t believe that President Trump wants confrontation.” More generally, given Trump’s historical opposition to military intervention and nation building, it is hard to imagine Trump’s instincts guiding him to launch a war with Iran. After all, during the 2016 campaign Trump called the war in Iraq a horrible mistake, and a regime-change invasion of Iran would be a far bigger challenge.

Immigration’s Popularity Is Rising Thanks to Trump

I recently reviewed Reihan Salam’s Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders.  My review is critical, but there is one major point on immigration that Salam gets right elsewhere: President Donald Trump will undermine the cause of immigration restriction.  Trump’s ugly rhetoric from the beginning, his administration’s casual and unnecessary cruelty in the case of child separations, his pandering with the Muslim travel ban, and his consistent call for a wall that will not slow down the flow of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who turn themselves in to Border Patrol, are all potentially undermining immigration restriction.  Immigration is getting more popular.

Gallup has been asking the same question on immigration since 1965:

Thinking now about immigrants – that is, people who come from other countries to live here in the United States, in your view, should immigration be kept at its present level, increased or decreased?

Since Trump was elected in 2016, the percentage of Americans who wanted increased immigration has risen by 9 percentage points from 21 percent to 30 percent (Figure 1).  Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who want less immigration has fallen from 38 percent to 31 percent.  In other words, the difference between those who want to increase immigration and those who want to decrease it currently lies within the statistical margin of error.  The percentage of those who want to keep immigration at the present level has stayed constant over that time.  The last time support for increased immigration climbed that much in so short a time was between 2011 and 2014, during a debate over a major reform bill in Congress.  Although the pro-reform side did not convince Congress to liberalize immigration law, they may have changed the minds of many Americans.

The current and gradual shift toward the pro-immigration opinion is especially large compared to 1993 when only 6 percent of Americans wanted to increase immigration and 65 percent wanted to decrease it.  Since then, the percentage of Americans who want more legal immigration has increased 5-fold while the percentage of those who want to cut immigration has more than halved. 

Figure 1

One criticism of the above Gallup question is that it asks about all immigration, which also includes illegal immigration.  Anecdotally, many people tell me that the question is bad because it doesn’t specify legal immigration and that support for legal immigration is much higher.  Gallup asked the same question about LEGAL immigration in 2018 and the results were barely different from the ALL immigration question (Table 1).  Fewer people support decreasing legal immigration and more support increasing it, but the difference is minor.  Bottom line: Most people who read the “all immigration” question understand that it includes “legal immigrants” and isn’t limited to just illegal immigrants.  The group of Americans who is “very opposed to illegal immigration and very supportive of legal immigration” is likely small.    

Table 1

Gallup has a suggestive and intermittently asked poll where they attempt to gauge the public perception of the threat that illegal immigrants pose.  In 2019, 47 percent said that it was “critical” (the highest threat level), but that is below the 50 percent who rated it as “critical” in 2004.  Looking at the two Gallup poll results, some of the people who think that illegal entry is a critical threat do not want to cut immigration.  This has potentially important implications for whether the perception of chaos is a driver of immigration opinion.

Retired and Raking It In

President Trump’s budget yesterday provides the latest evidence of out-of-control entitlement spending. In the baseline projections, Social Security spending will grow 5.9 percent in 2020 and Medicare spending will grow 8.8 percent. Social Security will grow at a 5.8 percent compound annual rate over the coming decade, while Medicare will grow at 7.8 percent. By contrast, inflation is expected to average 2.3 percent annually over the coming decade.

President Trump’s Campus Speech Order

President Trump has waded into the ongoing campus free speech controversy—or should I say “cannonballed” in off the high dive. Though lacking in details for now, Trump promised conservative activists at CPAC in Washington, D.C. that he would soon issue an executive order “requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars.”

Any Excuse to Raise Tariffs

The Trump administration seems to be looking for every possible excuse to raise tariffs. Early on it intensified the use of anti-dumping/countervailing duties and safeguard measures, which are the built-in protectionism that every administration uses. Then it dusted off some old statutes that had fallen into disuse: Section 232 (national security) to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum from around the world; and Section 301 (used to address unfair trade practices abroad) to impose tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese imports.

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