Donald Trump has claimed at times during the coronavirus outbreak that he wants his administration to provide assistance and equipment to other countries, but it was his secretary of state this week who made clear the president’s Covid-19 trade policy is shaped by the president’s “America first” instincts – even at the expense of virus-plagued US allies.
The president insisted Wednesday night that he is not worried about US-made medical equipment being sent to other countries at a time hospital officials and workers at home are sounding alarms about shortages. “I’m not, because … we’re in very good shape,” he claimed despite governors around the country saying the opposite.
Experts, however, see something different: An administration reluctant to alter an approach to global trade and diplomacy that led Mr Trump to launch a trade war with China, while essentially starting trade skirmishes with longtime American allies like Mexico, Canada and all of economic Europe. The UK has been spared a trade flap – for now.
To be sure, Trump’s political ideology does not fit neatly into any traditional American philosophy – it was jammed inside the Republican Party’s so-called “big tent” in 2016 as he became its leader and presidential nominee. Once he won the general election and took office, US lawmakers and trade experts of all political stripes have, at times, howled as they struggled to choke down Mr Trump’s norms-busting cocktail of mercantilist and isolationist foreign policy — which is chased with a pint of old-fashioned every-country-for-itself realism.
The president has appeared eager to avoid a perception he is opposed to sending medical equipment like ventilators and protective masks to other countries, but his administration’s actions and words suggest otherwise.
“So you’ve seen we’re making sure that we have what we need for the American people,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Wednesday during Mr Trump’s daily coronavirus task force briefing.
“At this point, what we are doing in terms of assistance is providing what most of these countries need to learn how to do surveillance themselves, to learn how to conduct tests themselves, to learn the things that can reduce the peak in their countries,” America’s top diplomat said, informing reporters they “should know the United States has been incredibly generous.”
“We have CDC officials, like no other country in the world, out helping these nations build out their … global epidemic healthcare infrastructure,” he said. “All around the world, putting these countries in a place where they’re better prepared for a virus like this one.”
But Mr Pompeo never listed shipments of personal protective equipment, ventilators, gloves or other American-made items that his department is helping get into the hands of medical workers in Europe or Asia, where US allies are still battling the disease.
“Unfortunately, this crisis occurs in a dark political climate, more similar to that of the early 30s, when many governments pursued nationalist, beggar-thy-neighbor policies such as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, and international cooperation was very limited,” Thomas Wright and Kurt Campbell wrote for the Brookings Institution.
“Over the past decade, the world has grown more authoritarian, nationalistic, xenophobic, unilateralist, anti-establishment, and anti-expertise,” the two foreign policy experts wrote in a white paper. “The current state of politics and geopolitics has exacerbated, not stabilised, the crisis.”
Mr Trump is part – not the cause – of that global trend. But his unique hybrid foreign and policy approach has created new ill will with some of America’s closest friends.
Canadian and French officials have charged Washington with intercepting medical supply shipments they say were meant for their countries. The US and India have tiffed over a malaria drug Mr Trump – defying his top health experts – contends will be a life-saving treatment drug for Covid-19 even though testing has yet to prove that out.
“We understand that the needs of the United States are real, but the needs of Canada are also real. And we need to work together to that end,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reportedly said recently, offering mild and diplomatic criticism of the Trump administration.
Chad Brown, who was the chief economist in the Obama White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, says Mr Trump’s “continued mistreatment of many trading partners, imposition of tariffs and threats of tariffs on their exports, may make it difficult now to get new sources of supplies.”
“Even allies are now lashing out and restricting the flow of medical equipment outside of their borders, including to the United States,” Mr Brown noted.
Experts also see Mr Trump’s trade policies towards US economic adversaries hindering the virus response.
The hundreds of billions of dollars worth of tariffs he slapped on Chinese goods included 26 per cent import fees on $5bn worth of medical items made there. While the Trump administration last month, mostly under the radar, announced it would lower some tariffs on some of those goods that are needed to fight the virus.
“But those actions, which effectively acknowledged that trade wars can endanger public health, covered only a handful of urgently needed products,” according to Mr Brown. “Now that there are potential supply shortages globally, the US health crisis demands that the administration comprehensively and permanently reverse these policies of self-harm.”
For his part, Mr Trump is painting a picture of a benevolent United States.
“We’re dealing with many countries right now. Many, many countries,” he said. “And we’re giving them whatever information we’re able to glean.”
Information. Not medical equipment.
‘The UK called today’
He and Mr Pompeo have made clear this week the United States government has been put on an “America first” footing.
“This morning, 450,000 protective suits landed in Dallas, Texas. This was made possible because of the partnership of two great American companies–DuPont and FedEx–and our friends in Vietnam. Thank you!” the president tweeted on Wednesday. Other than sending 200 breathing machines to the UK, Mr Trump has not loudly touted any American effort to help other countries, and even then he made a point to note “the UK called today” and made the ask.
Still, Mr Trump has suggested – contradicting his own health team and a list of Republican and Democratic governors – that the United States could soon have ventilators to spare, or “110,000 ventilators coming over a short period of time” to be exact.
“I don’t think we’ll need them. Hopefully, we won’t need them,” said the president who continues to insist against the advice of his health team that his country might reopen “very, very, very, very soon,” adding: “I don’t think we’ll need anywhere near them.”
That will give Mr Trump an opportunity, however unlikely, to alter an approach that sometimes has riled even some of his most ardent Republican supporters in Congress, experts say.
“National health organisations are working closely together, but the United States should be convening world leaders, whether in person or by conference, and coming up with a global response,” he said. “Stronger states must provide assistance to countries with weaker capacity to deal with the exigencies of the crisis, even if the countries are adversaries.”
But conservative policy experts are quick to note the United States has donated ample funding to the global response. And they want Mr Trump to get tougher on China – not ease the trade war during the pandemic.
“As the top government donor – having donated nearly $1.3 billion in aid to assist in the alleviation of COVID-19 as of 10 March 2020 – the US should press the Chinese government to improve access for international humanitarian aid and to expand freedom for domestic humanitarian groups to contribute to the response to this and future crises,” according to the right-leaning Heritage Foundation. “China will try to exploit the Covid-19 chaos by splitting off countries and pulling them into its orbit. One example is Italy.”
“The UK government is so angry with China,” wrote the think tank, which has ties inside the Trump administration, recently. “If ever there were a time for the US to redouble efforts to strengthen its transatlantic relationships, that time is now.”