Here is how things were set up in the White House in preparation for the president to make his announcement on steel and aluminum tariffs.
There were no prepared, approved remarks for the president to give at the planned meeting, there was no diplomatic strategy for how to alert foreign trade partners, there was no legislative strategy in place for informing Congress and no agreed upon communications plan beyond an email cobbled together by [Wilbur] Ross’s team at the Commerce Department late Wednesday that had not been approved by the White House.
No one at the State Department, the Treasury Department or the Defense Department had been told that a new policy was about to be announced or given an opportunity to weigh in in advance.
The Thursday morning meeting did not originally appear on the president’s public schedule. Shortly after it began, reporters were told that Ross had convened a “listening” session at the White House with 15 executives from the steel and aluminum industry.
Then, an hour later, in an another unexpected move, reporters were invited to the Cabinet room. Without warning, Trump announced on the spot that he was imposing new strict tariffs on imports.
By Thursday afternoon, the U.S. stock market had fallen and Trump, surrounded by his senior advisers in the Oval Office, was said to be furious.
In other words, there were no preparations at all. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appears to have pulled a fast one. He invited executives from the steel and aluminum industries to an 11 a.m. meeting yesterday at the White House but he did not share their identities with anyone in the West Wing—not even chief of staff John Kelly. The Secret Service wasn’t alerted, so the executives were not pre-cleared to enter the grounds. At mentioned above, the meeting wasn’t on Trump’s schedule.
All this stealth seems to have been required to prevent any organized resistance from forming that could have prevented the president from making his tariff announcement. But the cost was that a very controversial policy change landed like a thud without the advance work needed to mitigate any of the predictable problems it would immediately produce. Allies were shocked. Republicans were dumbfounded. The markets plunged. And people who had been lobbying for the tariffs were not in place to sell them.
Trump is reported to have been furious with the response his tariff announcement received, but he evidently did not consider the need to have a communications plan in place ahead of time.
One Trump official explained to NBC News that Trump had come “unglued” on Wednesday night and that his decision to move ahead with the tariff announcement was made in a moment of anger that left him “gunning for a fight.”
To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, “This the president we have, not the president we might wish to have.”
But now we know how you can get Trump to start a war with Iran or North Korea. Just wait for him to be spoiling for a fight, sidestep his chief of staff and the White House schedulers, and invite a bunch of dissidents into the Oval Office to ask for regime change.
No further preparations are necessary.