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Opinion | Trump Is Abusing His Tariff Power, Too

Why won’t Trump obey the law and hand over the document? My guess is that his people are afraid to let anyone see the Commerce report because it’s embarrassingly thin and incompetent. To be honest, I have some doubts about whether the report even exists. Remember, the Commerce Department is run by Wilbur Ross, whom readers of my colleague Gail Collins voted Trump’s worst cabinet member, which is quite a distinction given the competition.

Beyond all that, why does Trump even want to impose tariffs on European cars? Obviously it has nothing to do with national security. But what’s it really about?

Part of the answer may be that the self-proclaimed Tariff Man still believes that protectionism will revive American manufacturing, even though the evidence says that his trade war had the opposite effect.

Beyond that, it appears that Trump tried to use the threat of auto tariffs to bludgeon European nations into backing him up in his confrontation with Iran. This is, by the way, a clear violation both of U.S. law, which does not give the president discretion to impose tariffs for reasons unrelated to economics, and of our international agreements, which prohibit this kind of bullying.

And remember, the nations Trump was trying to bully are or were among our most important allies, part of the coalition of democracies we used to call the Free World. These days, our erstwhile allies can no longer consider America a reliable partner, on trade or anything else. Of course, that probably doesn’t bother Trump, who prefers autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman.

So how should we think about the auto tariff saga? At one level it’s part of the broader story of Trump’s trade war, which has raised prices for American consumers, hurt U.S. businesses and farmers and deterred business investment by creating uncertainty.

But these economic considerations are, I’d argue, much less important than the political aspects. Trump’s scofflaw behavior with regard to auto tariffs is part of a broader pattern of abuse of power and contempt for the rule of law. On every front, Trump treats U.S. policy as a tool he can deploy as he chooses, in his own interests, without seeking congressional approval or even informing Congress about what he’s doing or why.

Basically, the man in the White House operates on the principle that l’état, c’est Trump. It’s a principle nobody who believes in American ideals should accept.

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