Congress was completely inactive this week, but it was a busy time for policymaking nonetheless. The Trump administration rolled out new key initiatives on economic and foreign policy, even while continuing to bleed senior staff members at a seemingly incredible rate.
And in the states, West Virginia teachers won a raise through an unorthodox method — inspiring teachers elsewhere to consider similar moves.
Here’s what you need to know.
Trump slapped tariffs on steel and aluminum
After a slapdash initial announcement and a week of confusion about exactly what the policy was going to look like, the White House on Thursday afternoon announced a framework for new taxes on imported steel and aluminum.
- The basics: Foreign aluminum will be taxed at a 10 percent rate and foreign steel at a 25 percent rate, with metal coming in from Mexico and Canada exempt from the charges.
- European retaliation: That leaves European nations, South Korea, Brazil, and Japan as the main losers in the new policy, and the Europeans are prepared to strike back with a set of tariffs on US agricultural exports from sensitive states, starting with orange juice (Florida) and cranberries (Wisconsin).
- What’s next? That’s really the question. Conceivably, exemptions could expand over time, and the whole thing ends up not amounting to much. Or maybe Europe’s retaliation will lead to US countermeasures and huge escalation.
Gary Cohn says he’s quitting
Gary Cohn, the top White House economic adviser, announced his resignation earlier in the week while the details of the new tariff policy were being finalized. He hasn’t left office just yet, and no replacement has been announced.
- Why he quit: National Economic Council chiefs have often been influential officials, but the office doesn’t carry any formal authorities — if the president is going to ignore you, you are basically useless and may as well go.
- Why it matters: There continue to be enormous ambiguities in Trump’s approach on trade, and whether his White House is staffed with people who try to restrain the president’s protectionist instincts or egg them on is a huge issue going forward.
- What’s next? The White House has so many senior vacancies at the moment — including communications director, staff secretary, and several deputy jobs — that we could conceivably be looking at a huge makeover of the administration’s identity in a more stridently protectionist manner.
Trump will (maybe) do a summit with Kim Jong Un
South Korea’s national security adviser made a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room Thursday night to announce that Trump had agreed to accept North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s invitation for direct talks sometime between now and May.
- A big, unilateral concession: No US president has ever sat down with a North Korean leader, and such a meeting has been a goal of US foreign policy since Bill Clinton’s administration. To agree to such a meeting without preconditions — something Obama said he would do as a candidate, only to back away from it once taking office — is striking.
- A lot of unanswered questions: Administration officials noted after the meeting that no date or location had been set for the May meeting, and it’s not clear what the agenda is.
- A big surprise: Officials at both the Pentagon and the State Department appeared to be genuinely in the dark about the announcement until moments before it happened, raising significant questions about what kind of planning for this is taking place on the US side.
Red-state teachers are getting angry
A “wildcat strike” by public school teachers in West Virginia — a state where teachers have no collective bargaining rights — proved successful, as Gov. Jim Justice and the state legislature agreed to a 5 percent wage hike.
- Why it matters: It’s a big deal for West Virginia, obviously — kids will go back to school, and teachers will get higher pay. But more importantly, it’s a model for collective action outside the usual legal and political channels.
- Oklahoma and Arizona could be next: Teachers in Oklahoma and Arizona — two other states where tax cuts have engendered big school funding cuts — are actively discussing following in West Virginia’s footsteps.
- What’s next? Republican officials certainly have no intention of becoming sudden enthusiasts for teacher pay hikes, and basic culture war dynamics makes it unlikely you’ll see Democratic legislatures in much of the country anytime soon — which could leave direct action looking like a more and more attractive option in many quarters.