President Donald Trump has used tariffs as a weapon to negotiate better trade arrangements. It hasn’t worked, so far — and many economists say it never will — but at least Trump is addressing an economic problem with an economic tactic.
He veered outside those guard rails, however, when he doubled tariffs on imports of Turkish steel and aluminum. Turkey is suffering a self-made financial crisis, with its currency plunging and foreign investors bailing out. Trump piled on with tariffs that will hurt Turkish manufacturers — but not because it can plausibly generate some economic benefit to the United States. Instead, Trump seems to be trying to use tariffs to settle a personal score with Turkey’s tough-guy president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and to score points with a political constituency Trump deems crucial to his base.
Tariffs are dangerous enough as an economic tool. It’s abusive and reckless to use them for political purposes. For that reason, this week’s Trump-o-meter reads WEAK, our third lowest rating.
Here’s the backstory on the Turkish tariffs. Turkey is the world’s eighth-biggest steel producer, and it ships about $1 billion worth of steel to the United States each year, along with a small amount of aluminum. So the Trump tariffs — now 50% on Turkish steel imports, and 20% on aluminum — will hurt Turkey. And Trump knows it.
American relations with Turkey have been deteriorating for some time, for a variety of reasons. Erdogan is irate at the United States for providing safe harbor to a Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gülen, he blames for helping foment the 2016 coup attempt that almost swept Erdoğan from power. Erdogan wants the U.S. to extradite the cleric, which it has refused to do.
After the 2016 coup attempt, Turkish forces arrested an American pastor who lives in Turkey, Andrew Brunson, and charged him with participating in the plot. Brunson’s supporters say he had nothing to do with the uprising and is a pawn Erdogan thinks he might be able to exchange for Gulen.
Evangelical groups in the U.S. have taken up Brunson’s cause (even though he has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years), and pressured Trump to find a way to free him. Trump regards evangelicals as a key part of his political base, so he has worked the problem with Erdogan. In July, Trump apparently thought he had worked out a deal to free Brunson, and appease his evangelical supporters. But the deal never materialized. An angry Trump responded by ordering sanctions on two Turkish government ministers, and threatening worse.
Worse arrived on August 10, when Trump ordered the doubling of the steel and aluminum tariffs on Turkey — not even bothering to cite any economic reason for the move. He even seemed to gloat about Turkey’s economic freefall, tweeting that “the Turkish lira, slides rapidly against our very strong Dollar!”
The United States isn’t responsible for Turkey’s economic problems — but it is now responsible for making them worse. Erdoğan is one of the Middle East’s more repressive strongmen, charged with rampant human-rights abuses. But Turkey is also a NATO ally and an important customer of European banks. If anything, it’s in America’s interest to help stabilize the Turkish economy, rather than further weakening it.
Turkey should free Brunson, but tariffs aren’t the right way to apply leverage. Diplomacy is. The tariffs, in a way, even help Erdogan, by giving a legitimate reason to blame Turkey’s woes on the United States. Trump should holster his tariffs altogether, because there are better ways to address problems with trade. But if he’s going to wield tariffs, he should at least limit them to economic disputes, not political ones.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman