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Trump Is Taking Credit for Resolving the Crises He Created

The president seems to be following a familiar playbook with his threat to impose sweeping tariffs on Mexico to gain leverage on the immigration issue

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

One of Donald Trump’s signature moves as president is to act as both arsonist and firefighter, taking credit for resolving pseudo-crises that he in fact initiated. The latest example came Friday, when Trump declared another immigration crisis at the country’s southern border with Mexico, and threatened to impose tariffs on all goods imported from the country if it didn’t take action to stem the flow of migrants. This latest escalation will likely end in Trump taking credit for an expected decline in immigration.

These tactics, of course, are not without precedent. Politicians frequently claim there is a crisis when they want to change public policy around an issue. Incumbents everywhere present themselves as responsible for the status quo when times are good. But we’ve seemingly never had a president who so frequently declares a crisis or even starts one — and then takes credit for solving it.

This pattern dates to before Trump even took office. In some cases, the scheme is an entirely rhetorical move in which he warns of crisis and then claims credit for preventing it from happening. For example, Trump frequently claimed, falsely, that jobs and unemployment data showing the economy improving under President Obama were bogus. But once he became president, he embraced those same figures, which he said showed that his policies had turned around the economy. By May 2017, then-White House spokesperson Sean Spicer was stating that the jobs data “may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.” Trump himself frequently takes credit for the economy even though the trend in job growth predates his Oval Office tenure.

Trump also frequently claims to have prevented the outsourcing of jobs that were never in danger of shifting abroad in the first place. Soon after his election, for instance, Trump suggested that a Ford plant would stay in Kentucky rather than being moved to Mexico because of his efforts, writing on Twitter, “I worked hard with Bill Ford to keep the Lincoln plant in Kentucky. I owed it to the great State of Kentucky for their confidence in me!” But, as the New York Times reported, Ford never intended to shutter the plant or reduce jobs; it had only planned to change which vehicle was produced there.

Trump’s crisis-generating approach to governance extends to foreign policy, too. In his latest State of the Union address, Trump suggested that his outreach to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un — which has not resulted in a concrete agreement to address the nuclear threat Pyongyang still poses — saved the two countries from going to war. “If I had not been elected president of the United States,” Trump declared, “we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.” Fact-checkers have found no evidence to support these claims, however. Trump’s need to take credit for a diplomatic victory on North Korea has also led him to downplay its continued violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

During the 2018 midterm elections, Trump engaged in the same rhetorical maneuver to fan fears of a supposed immigrant invasion. Between October 16 and 31 of that year, Trump tweeted six times about a caravan headed for the southern border of the United States, calling it a national emergency and threatening a military response. These claims were amplified by cable news, which covered the issue at saturation intensity. In reality, the group of a few thousand people, which posed little threat, stalled at the southern border due to the difficulty of claiming asylum. Trump quickly forgot about the caravan after the election (as did the media), but not before claiming victory for averting an immigration crisis: “Remember the Caravans?” he tweeted. “Well, they didn’t get through and none are forming or on their way. Border is tight. Fake News silent!”

In some cases, however, Trump goes further and destabilizes the status quo rather than simply taking credit for preventing a crisis that never took place. This tactic allows him to make a deal to restore normalcy, which he can attribute to his deal-making savvy. Most recently, Trump refused to accept a budget deal with Congress that did not fund his so-called border wall, prompting the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

When he was forced to back down, he still trumpeted the deal, saying, “I am very proud to announce today that we have reached a deal to end the shutdown and re-open the federal government.” Since then, Congress has continued to refuse to authorize funding for the new barriers he proposes, so Trump now takes credit for replacement barriers at the border, which he has begun to call a wall.

We’ve seemingly never had a president who so frequently declares a crisis or even starts one and then takes credit for solving it.

When Trump threatened last year to withdraw the U.S. from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico, he was taking the same approach. In an effort to pressure those countries to agree to a new trade deal, the president imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from both countries, costing U.S. consumers billions of dollars. (Both countries responded in turn with retaliatory tariffs of their own.)

Trump followed this move by negotiating a replacement deal, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which Vox describes as “essentially NAFTA 2.0, with a few updates.” Nonetheless, the president trumpeted the extremely similar new deal as “the most modern, up-to-date and most balanced trade agreement in the history of our country” and “the single greatest agreement ever signed.” Though the USMCA has not been ratified, the three countries recently agreed to end their tariff war in its aftermath. Trump then touted that “we’ll be selling our product into those countries without the imposition of tariffs,” which the White House described as “huge wins for American farming, aluminum, and steel.” Few readers are likely to know that the USMCA and these “huge wins” largely restored the status quo from before Trump took office.

The president now seems likely to follow the same playbook with his threat to impose sweeping tariffs on Mexico to gain leverage on the immigration issue. The tariffs would prove damaging to the economy as he heads toward his re-election campaign. As a result, Trump has every reason to resolve this crisis in the same manner as his previous ones. The question is how he can do so. As Vox’s Dara Lind pointed out on Twitter, migrant flows will likely decline in the coming months as the heat-related risks to border crossings increase. Trump will then likely have the option to declare that his policy “worked” and withdraw the tariffs.

Like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise, then, the president will essentially be claiming credit for the weather itself — an appropriate reductio ad absurdum of his credit-by-gaslighting style of governance.

Professor of Public Policy, University of Michigan

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