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People often don't believe Trump's threats — but his track record says they should

Key Points
  • Trump has repeatedly shown during his first term in office that even some of his most controversial threats are more than mere bargaining chips or toothless bluster.
  • To be sure, Trump has not acted on some previous hard-line positions, such as a threat to close the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • But as Trump's best-selling "The Art of the Deal" says, "If you don't deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on." Indeed, he has followed through as best he could on many threats that were initially deemed extreme or impractical by his critics.
President Donald Trump in the Cabinet Room of the White House, December 13, 2018.
Jim Young | Reuters

President Donald Trump's bombastic rhetoric and surprise policy tweets are often greeted with skepticism. But he has repeatedly shown that even some of his most controversial threats are more than mere bargaining chips or bluster.

Trump's most recent demand is that Mexico "STOP" the flow of illegal migrants into the U.S. — or face a 5% tariff on all goods coming into the country.

A White House statement expanded on the president's announcement, saying that unless Mexico "substantially stops" the number of illegal entrants across the southern border the tariffs will grow steadily more severe, to as high as 25% by October.

The reactions from experts and lawmakers broadly ranged from concern to cautious skepticism. Some suggested that Trump was simply using the threat of tariffs as a bargaining chip. But he has a track record of following through on his intentions — including his attempt to repeal Obamacare, which came one Senate vote short, or his decision earlier this month to hike tariffs on Chinese goods.

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Trump's Mexico tariffs not 'bargaining chips'

Although stocks sank Friday morning after the Mexico tariff announcement, J.P. Morgan analyst Nur Cristiani cautioned in a strategist note not to "press the panic button ... just yet." A New York Times economic correspondent tweeted that "Mexico has every incentive to call Trump's bluff on this."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told Politico earlier this month that Trump merely "believes in tariffs as a tool to get a negotiation as opposed to being an end in themselves."

To be sure, Trump has declined to act on some hard-line positions. He signed an omnibus spending bill in March 2018 that he had threatened to veto, saying it was "a matter of national security" while complaining that it was a "ridiculous situation." He had threatened to close "large sections" of the border, or even the entire border, unless Mexico stopped "ALL illegal immigration." That never happened.

But as Trump's best-selling "The Art of the Deal" says, "If you don't deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on." And Trump has, indeed, followed through on many threats that were initially deemed extreme or impractical by his critics.

Tariff man

For instance, Trump has long held, and has freely expressed, protectionist views on trade. As president, he has described himself as a "tariff man," proclaimed that "tariffs are the greatest!" and called trade wars "good, and easy to win. " His administration has imposed tariffs on neighboring allies Canada and Mexico. It is also locked in an intensifying trade dispute with China, in which both countries have slapped duties on hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of each other's goods.

Despite the prior insistence from top White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow that Trump wants "free and open trade," The New York Times reported in May that, "Beyond an update to the United States agreement with South Korea, no other free trade deals have been finalized."

The American Enterprise Institute's economic policy studies director, Michael Strain, told the Times that the more accurate explanation would be to take the president at his word that he is, indeed, a protectionist. Trump's threat to Mexico, which could jeopardize the trilateral free-trade deal to replace NAFTA, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA, is only the latest example.

AT&T and Time Warner

It goes beyond trade. As a presidential candidate, Trump vowed to block a pending merger deal between AT&T and Time Warner. But it wasn't clear to experts if Trump would follow through on that promise once he took office.

"It's impossible to know at this point how real his populist rhetoric is going to be in terms of policy," said Public Knowledge's Senior Vice President Harold Feld in an Ars Technica interview at the time.

But the Trump administration did fight to prevent AT&T's $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, kicking off a lengthy court fight that only ended in February after the Justice Department said it would not seek further appeals to block the merger.

Democrats have requested documents that could show whether Trump sought to intervene in the government's review of the merger. The White House denied that request in April.

The wall and the border

After Trump said he would be "proud to shut down the government for border security" in the form of funding for his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, his threat was dismissed by some as a bluff.

But Trump dug in his heels and allowed the government to partially shut down in December and vowed to keep it closed until Democrats met his funding demands. The result: the longest partial government shutdown on record. He finally signed a funding bill that did not contain wall money in late January.

Still, it can be difficult to track whether Trump has followed through on all his threats and promises, as there are often substantive differences between Trump's language and the language used by administration officials.

Take the threat of new tariffs on Mexico as an example. In a call with reporters Thursday night, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said that the new proposal was specifically focused on immigration and was "not linked" to trade or the USMCA.

"These are not tariffs as part of a trade dispute. These are tariffs as part of an immigration problem. The USMCA is a trade matter and completely separate," Mulvaney said.

The next morning, however, Trump appeared to connect the two issues.

"In order not to pay Tariffs, if they start rising, companies will leave Mexico, which has taken 30% of our Auto Industry, and come back home to the USA," Trump said in a tweet.

In another, Trump said: "We have a 100 Billion Dollar Trade Deficit with Mexico. It's time!"