Trump's year in OPEC tweets: How the president deflected blame for rising oil prices

  • President Donald Trump has sought to shape the conversation around rising oil prices this year by attacking OPEC on Twitter.
  • Trump has blamed OPEC for higher oil prices, especially at times when his decision to restore sanctions on Iran was pushing up the cost of crude.
  • OPEC is poised to defy Trump and launch a fresh round of production cuts following a two-month collapse in oil prices.
OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) logo is seen on a mobile phone with the President of United States of America, Donald Trump on the background. 
Omar Marques | LightRocket | Getty Images
OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) logo is seen on a mobile phone with the President of United States of America, Donald Trump on the background. 

On the morning of April 20, the oil market woke up to a surprise. President Donald Trump was on Twitter warning OPEC that he would not tolerate the cartel's oil price manipulation.

At the time, investors might have written off the early morning tweet as another outburst from a mercurial president. But seven months later, it looks more like the opening salvo in a campaign to deflect blame when oil prices rise and take credit when they fall.

Longtime Trump followers would have also recognized back in April that Trump was not picking a new fight, but reviving an old grudge with OPEC. The cartel was a favorite target for Trump when he was testing the political waters and honing his America First message during the 2012 election cycle.

"It's a really low-cost strategy for him because if he gets oil prices down, he gets credit for it. If prices rise, he can blame OPEC. ... There's no real risk on this. It's quite clever in a way." -Derek Brower, RS Energy Group director

To be sure, OPEC has played a pivotal role in the oil price recovery since crude fell to 12½-year lows in 2016. Last year, the 15-nation cartel partnered with Russia and other exporters to keep 1.8 million barrels per day off the market.

But the other major policy driving oil prices this year is Trump's decision to restore sanctions on Iran, OPEC's third biggest producer. A review of Trump's OPEC tweets this year shows the president often sought to blame the group just when his Iran policy was pushing up prices.

"It's a really low-cost strategy for him because if he gets oil prices down, he gets credit for it. If prices rise, he can blame OPEC," said Derek Brower, a director specializing in political risk at RS Energy Group. "There's no real risk on this. It's quite clever in a way."

Trump may deploy that strategy sooner than expected. After a meeting fraught with confusion, intrigue and infighting, OPEC and its allies agreed to a fresh round of production cuts this week, hoping to stem a collapse in oil prices that dragged Brent crude below $50 recently.

CNBC annotated Trump's tweets to show how the president has used Twitter to shape the conversation around this year's wild oil price swings.

Trump's pre-White House tweets: A brief history

Trump first began tweeting about OPEC in August 2011. At the time, oil was trading around $100 a barrel, the Republican presidential primary was getting underway and Trump was preparing to release his political manifesto "Time to Get Tough: Make America Great Again!"

The tweets followed a fairly predictable formula: OPEC is jacking up oil prices and President Barack Obama is sitting idly by while Americans get ripped off at gas stations across America.

OPEC was fertile ground for Trump between 2011 and 2013. He tweeted about the cartel more than 50 times and heaped criticism on Saudi Arabia in separate Twitter missives. But after September 2013, he mostly laid off OPEC, only tweeting about the cartel twice in 2014.

Yet those two tweets were remarkable. In both, Trump quoted Twitter followers who said U.S gasoline prices were dropping because the real estate developer and reality TV star had put pressure on OPEC.

That claim would have been a stretch on any given day in 2014, but on this particular day, it was downright audacious.

Trump sent the first tweet on Nov. 28, the day after OPEC refused to cut production to drain a growing global oil glut. It was a decisive moment in oil market history that sparked one of the worst downturns on record. Still, Trump tacitly took credit.

April 20: Trump's opening shot

After a roughly 4½-year break from lambasting OPEC on Twitter, Trump came out swinging in April:

The context is important and sets the scene for the rest of the year. The cost of crude was on the rise throughout 2017, but the rally accelerated in the first half of 2018, spurred by a cocktail of geopolitics, OPEC policy and Trump's own agenda.

By April, it was becoming more certain that Trump would restore sanctions on Iran. That threatened to tighten oil supplies and exacerbate already simmering tensions in the Middle East.

The United States, United Kingdom and France also launched an airstrike on Syria that month, raising the prospect of direct conflict between Washington and Russia, Syria's main backer. Meanwhile, Houthi rebels in Yemen were launching missile strikes on neighboring Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi crown prince said the kingdom would obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran developed one.

Adding to supply concerns, the OPEC alliance's production began dropping rapidly, as output from Libya and Venezuela sank. By April, the group had taken about 2.7 million barrels per day off the market, roughly 900,000 bpd more than it intended.

Oil prices got another boost from reports that Saudi Arabia wanted international benchmark Brent crude prices to rise to $80-$100 a barrel. At an OPEC alliance meeting on April 20, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih poured cold water on the idea of lifting the production caps.

That same morning, Trump unleashed his first OPEC tweet of 2018.

June 13: Trump dodges blame for rising oil prices

Trump laid off OPEC for nearly two months, until the week before the cartel's midyear meeting:

U.S. crude had recently spiked above $70 for the first time since 2014 after Trump restored sanctions on Iran. The consensus in the oil market was nearly universal: The blame for higher oil prices rested largely with Trump. Yet the president continued to insist OPEC alone was at fault.

Concerned that its Iran policy would send oil prices higher, the Trump administration had been actively lobbying Saudi Arabia to hike output. By the time Trump sent his tweet, the output increase looked like a done deal, and U.S. crude had fallen from a recent high near $73 to about $67.

Yet the average U.S. gasoline price was still near $3 a gallon. Higher pump prices threatened to erase the boost that middle- and working-class Americans got from tax cuts, the Republicans' only major legislative accomplishment in 2017. That was a political liability ahead of midterm elections in November.

Notably, Trump accused Obama of conspiring with the Saudis to lower oil prices ahead of the 2012 election.

June 22: Trump's last ditch pitch

The day of OPEC's midyear meeting, Trump sent one final request:

Trump got what he asked for. Sort of.

OPEC agreed to hike output by about 1 million bpd, but the plan was short on details and left the market with more questions than answers. Instead of backing down, oil prices charged higher.

June 30: Trump takes his gripe to the king

With U.S crude approaching $75, Trump took matters into his own hands and went straight to the top:

The White House later issued a statement clarifying that Saudi Arabia has the ability to increase output by 2 million bpd, but did not have plans to tap its spare capacity just yet.

Trump made the call to King Salman after U.S. crude prices jumped $6 a barrel in just four days. Though Trump invoked Iran and Venezuela, the culprit behind the sudden spike was once again his own administration.

Four days after OPEC announced the output hike, a State Department official told reporters the Trump administration was telling companies to cut their imports of Iranian crude to zero by Nov. 4. The official suggested there would be few exemptions. The hard-line stance shocked the market, and oil prices rallied.

July 4: Fireworks on Independence Day

A few days later, with U.S. crude at $75 and gasoline prices stuck near $3 a gallon over a busy holiday driving weekend, Trump let loose:

Prices at U.S. pumps were at four-year highs over the July 4 weekend. Analysts were warning Trump's hawkish Iran policy might keep oil prices elevated and rob Americans of the gasoline price relief they usually get in the fall. Some said Americans might actually be paying more for gas when they went to the polls to vote in midterms on Nov. 6, just two days after Trump's Iran deadline.

Two days earlier, in a sign the administration realized it had erred, the State Department organized another call with reporters. A senior official walked back the more junior staffer's comments that caused oil prices to spike a week earlier.

U.S. crude soon settled into a range between $65 and $70.

Sept 20: Trump's time is running out

Six weeks before the U.S. midterm elections, oil prices were taking another run at $75 and gasoline was stuck near $2.85 a gallon. Trump took to Twitter:

Time was running short for Trump to drive down gasoline prices, and reports were resurfacing that the Saudis were comfortable with Brent crude prices at $70 to $80. The OPEC alliance's monitoring committee was also preparing to meet, and the group was reportedly planning no additional action to rein in prices.

Meanwhile, Iran's exports were falling faster than many expected ahead of Trump's Nov. 4 deadline. Between June and September, Iran's shipments fell by about 800,000 bpd. Over the next two weeks, oil prices rallied to nearly four-year highs. With U.S. crude approaching $77 and Brent topping $86, Wall Street began speculating about $100 oil.

Five days after sending his latest tweet, Trump took his grievance to the U.N. General Assembly, declaring before world leaders: "OPEC nations are as usual ripping off the rest of the world."

In a Washington Post interview last week, Trump disclosed that it was around this time that he called the Saudis and berated them about oil prices. The following month, Falih said Saudi Arabia would pump about 10.7 million bpd in October and a record 11 million bpd in November.

Nov. 12: Oil prices collapse, but not enough for Trump

By the time Trump next tweeted about OPEC, the oil market looked very different. Oil prices had collapsed rapidly amid a broad market sell-off, and OPEC was considering a fresh round of production cuts to stem the losses, prompting a presidential warning:

A day earlier, the OPEC alliance's monitoring committee warned that oil markets looked oversupplied and producers may have to reverse course and cut production.

By that point, U.S. crude had fallen more than 20 percent to about $60 a barrel. Investors no longer feared oil shortages due to the Iran sanctions. Now, they worried supply would soon outstrip demand.

That was due in part to forecasts for weaker-than-expected growth in 2019 oil demand. But it was also because Trump allowed several of Iran's biggest customers to continue importing its crude for another six months, despite threatening for months to drive its exports down to zero. That meant global oil supplies wouldn't fall as much as the OPEC alliance anticipated, prompting accusations that Trump had essentially tricked the Saudis into tanking oil prices ahead of the midterm elections.

Another major event had transpired since Trump's last tweet: Saudi Arabia was badly bruised after it was revealed that agents of the kingdom killed and allegedly dismembered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Nov. 21: Trump leverages the Khashoggi crisis

The following week, oil fell below $55 a barrel and Trump took to Twitter to heap praise on Saudi Arabia and urge the kingdom to keep driving down the cost of crude:

One day earlier, Trump announced he would stand by Saudi Arabia, despite the CIA reportedly concluding that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was likely involved in Khashoggi's death. Trump chalked up his decision in no small part to his desire to keep oil prices low and protect U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Trump's Twitter "thank you" to the Saudis was notable for several reasons. First and foremost, it's widely seen as part of a broader effort to dissuade the Saudis from cutting output and boosting prices, even though the OPEC alliance is widely expected to do just that this week.

Second, by thanking the Saudis, Trump did something that he once criticized as a sign of weakness and idiocy. In a March 2012 tweet, Trump said the Saudis "manipulate the price then think we are idiots and will thank them for agreeing to release some more oil. We need a leader who knows how to deal with OPEC."

Lastly, the tweet raises questions about how low is low enough for Trump. The president has not made that clear, but in tweets in 2012 and 2013, he said crude oil is not worth more than $30 a barrel, and while $40 might be acceptable, $25 is ideal.

Analysts already warn that oil prices at $50 a barrel will start to put financial pressure on U.S. drillers, who rely on expensive techniques like hydraulic fracturing to produce oil and gas. It's not clear how this plays into Trump's calculus, or whether the president truly intends to pursue ultra-low prices.

The White House did not respond to a request for clarification on Trump's preferred oil price.

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