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Trump’s Tariff Plan Against Mexico Fits a Pattern

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In other words, as my colleague Peter Nicholas explained last week, Mueller’s remarks further inflamed Trump’s anger toward the special counsel. So while his tariff announcement was in many ways a surprise, it also had a tinge of inevitability. According to current and former aides, who requested anonymity to speak freely, when Trump feels he has lost control of the narrative, he grasps at two issues: border security and trade. Those aides said he sees these topics as reset buttons, ways to rile both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and draw attention away from whatever dumpster fire is blazing in a given week. “Whenever a negative story comes around, his instinct is to pivot to immigration or trade,” a senior campaign adviser told me. “It’s kind of like his safety blanket. He knows that Fox and conservative media will immediately coalesce and change what the base is talking about.”

That tactic often works: By the end of a week in which the lies of the White House’s representation of the Mueller report became more apparent than ever, reporters, pundits, and the stock market were all responding instead to Trump’s latest attempt to curb immigration at the southern border. (The Dow Jones closed Friday at four-month lows in response to the tariffs.)

One former senior White House official explained Trump’s instincts as a function of his intractable belief that the American people support his policies on immigration and trade, even if party leaders do not. As the source put it to me, the president thrives on the warm reception he receives at rallies and believes that those policies fuel it. The former official pointed to another time when Trump surprised his advisers by levying tariffs: In March 2018, in off-the-cuff remarks during a meeting with steel and aluminum executives, Trump announced the beginning of a global trade war by promising a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports. In this case, the former official said, Trump’s snap decision was not so much a way to distract from a particular news cycle as it was the result of “feeling good in the moment” as he bantered cheerfully with the executives. Put another way, dramatic moves on trade and immigration are not only a balm for Trump in times of distress, but also a gloss on moments already going smoothly.

That Trump reverted to tariffs on Thursday offers a clue as to just how distressing the past week has been for him. Trump is no stranger to bad weeks, of course. But according to the senior campaign adviser, he was particularly unnerved by the media attention Mueller’s statement received. “Mueller controlled the news cycle,” this person said. “It was 24/7 the last couple of days. And that’s what bothers him.” Added to that was the increasing number of 2020 candidates calling to begin impeachment proceedings against the president, a topic most have been loath to touch on the campaign trail. For any public bluster from the White House welcoming an impeachment fight, Trump has zero private desire to take one on, according to a second senior campaign official. “To be impeached?!? No one wants that,” the source told me in a text message.

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