Witcover: Policy clarity, Trump style

President Trump regularly likes to signal his approval or disapproval by flashing his thumbs up or down. But sometimes he remains inscrutable, even to his Cabinet.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross perhaps better summed it up best on Sunday in commenting on his boss's policy on trade tariffs. "Whatever his final decision is," Mr. Ross offered on NBC News' "Meet the Press," "is what will happen. What he has said, he has said. If he says something different, it'll be something different."


The president's intentions were further "clarified" through his White House trade adviser, Peter Navarro, on CNN the same morning. When asked whether there might be any country exemptions from Mr. Trump's proclamation of a 25 percent tariff of steel and 10 percent tariff on aluminum, Mr. Navarro replied:

"That's not his decision. As soon as he exempts exempting countries, he has to raise the tariff on everybody else. As soon as he exempts one country, his phone starts ringing with the heads of state of other countries."


In a separate interview on Fox News, Mr. Navarro characterized the steel and aluminum tariffs as "country agnostic," but in the CNN comments he allowed the possibility of exemptions if they would be in America's interest. "There will be an exemption procedure for particular cases where we need to have exemptions so that business can move forward," he said, "but at this point in time there will be no country exclusions."

Mr. Ross, however, said that while he hadn't heard Mr. Trump "describe particular exemptions" and didn't expect he would change his mind, he wouldn't rule it out. The commerce secretary certainly would have ample reason to make the latter observation. Mr. Trump has been a revolving door on such critical issues as protecting undocumented immigrant "Dreamers" from deportation and certain gun-control proposals like raising the age for purchasing assault weapons from 18 to 21 and stronger background checks.

One of the president's on-again, off-again golf partners, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, pleaded to him on CBS News: "Please reconsider. ... You're punishing the American taxpayers, and you are making a huge mistake." Mr. Graham added that Mr. Trump was "letting China off the hook" by flooding the world market for steel and aluminum. Mr. Graham's state is the second-largest maker of automobiles after Michigan, and he complained that the steel tariff would particularly hurt auto workers there.

Pushback from other top congressional Republicans was swift and firm. A spokesperson for House Speaker Paul Ryan said, "We are extremely worried about the consequences of a trade war and are urging the White House not to advance with this plan." And Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah said it would be "a tragedy" if the White House continues on its current course. But Mr. Trump quickly told reporters: "No, we're not backing down."

Mr. Navarro on Fox News disagreed that a new trade war would bring on damaging retaliation from other countries, including Canada, the United States' largest trading partner, and members of the European Union.

In any event, the president's surprise rollout of the new, higher tariffs on steel and aluminum, apparently without taking soundings from interested industry leaders, foreign trading partners and Congress, underscored his random policy approach.

His comment that "trade wars are good and easy to win" riled many in both parties and reflected a rather glib attitude all too familiar in the Trump management style. It is the president's uncertain trumpet on other key policy issues that has Congress mired in discontent over his habit of saying what he wants one day and the next day or week changing or backing off what first had sounded a like a firm commitment.

His airy promise on saving the Dreamers with any bill the legislators of both parties would put before him, followed by his unapologetic retreat, was especially grating to them. He uttered those words at an open meeting, later suspiciously viewed by critics as a hollow grandstand play on which he had no intention of following through.


After more than a year into Mr. Trump's presidency, even the most gullible listeners in Congress should have learned by now that the president's word can be depended on about as much as his two favorite throwaway expressions: "Believe me," and "That I can tell you" — or his assurance that "Mexico will pay" for the wall he will build on our southern border.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is