Trump Gives U.S. Business the Ukraine Treatment
Support him if you want a tariff break.
The story that has emerged in the impeachment hearings is one of extortion and bribery. Donald Trump withheld crucial aid — aid Ukraine needed to defend itself against Russian aggression — and refused to release it unless Ukraine publicly said it was investigating one of his political rivals. Even Republicans understand this; they just think it’s O.K.
And remember, the Ukraine scandal made it into the public eye only because a single whistle-blower set an investigation in motion. I know I’m not alone in wondering how many other comparable scandals haven’t come to light.
Nor need these scandals involve foreign governments. What I haven’t seen pointed out is that Trump is quietly applying a Ukraine-type extortion-and-bribery strategy to U.S. corporations. Many businesses are being threatened with policies that would hurt their bottom lines — especially, but not only, tariffs on imported goods crucial to their operations. But they are also being offered the possibility of exemptions from these policies.
And the implicit quid pro quo for such exemptions is that corporations support Donald Trump, or at least refrain from criticizing his actions.
Consider, for example, what happened last week, when Trump toured an Apple manufacturing plant together with Tim Cook, Apple’s C.E.O. Trump used the occasion to make a political speech, attacking impeachment proceedings and falsely claiming that Nancy Pelosi has “closed Congress.” He also asserted that the plant, which has been operating since 2013, had just opened.
And Cook, far from correcting these falsehoods, expressed support, declaring that America has the “strongest economy in the world.”
Cook’s incentive to play along was obvious. Apple assembles many of its products in China; it’s seeking exemptions from Trump’s China tariffs. And there’s every reason to believe that the allocation of such exemptions is driven by politics, not the national interest.
For example, in 2018 a company owned by Oleg Deripaska — an oligarch close to Vladimir Putin, who is supposed to be under U.S. sanctions for activities that include interference in foreign elections — received a waiver from aluminum tariffs. The waiver was withdrawn only after Democrats in Congress noticed it, with the Commerce Department claiming that it had been granted as a result of a “clerical error.” Uh-huh.
By the way, if you’re wondering why the Trump administration has the power to play favorites, it’s because U.S. trade law gives the president a lot of discretion in setting tariffs. The purpose of that discretion was to diminish the power of special interests in Congress, based on the assumption that the president would be better at serving the national interest. But then came Trump.