On Tuesday January 29 2019, WITA hosted its inaugural Washington International Trade Conference (WITC). At the event, WITA hosted a panel discussion on trade reporting.
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Meet the Trade Press, Reporters Roundtable
By: James Dail
On January 29th, 2019 WITA hosted a panel discussion entitled “Meet the Trade Press, Reporters Roundtable” as a part of the inaugural Washington International Trade Conference. In the past, WITA events have featured reporters moderating panels or asking speakers pertinent questions. This event was notable for turning the tables and allowing the audience to ask member of the press about their thoughts on trade issues. The reporters featured in the roundtable discussion were Gina Chon, a Washington Columnist at Reuters Breakingviews, Shawn Donnan, a Senior Writer at Bloomberg, and David Lynch, a Global Economics Correspondent at the Washington Post. Dorothy Dwoskin, the Principal of d2Strategies LLC, was the event’s moderator.
Dorothy Dwoskin opened the roundtable by asking the panelists how the current administration has altered their reporting of trade issues. Shawn Donnan respond to the query first, noting that trade is now an issue at the forefront of public discussion, whereas it had previously been an area that had a slower pace of news and lacked prominent exposure to the public. He stated that much of this shift can be attributed to this administration’s challenge of the long-standing, fundamental assumptions around trade policy. Shawn concluded his thoughts by observing that the diversity of viewpoints within this administration have made reporters unsure if lower-level officials are speaking for the administration or pushing their own agendas.
Gina Chon joined the discussion by echoing this thought, saying that opposing factions within the administration, as well as the President’s tendency to change his opinion based on current circumstance, has made reporting difficult. From there, she altered the discussion by observing that a new aspect of her job is that foreign officials are asking reporters for advice on how to deal with the current administration.
David Lynch answered Dorothy’s question with three main points. He said that the changes fundamentally come down to access, pace, and priority. Access to the USTR has greatly diminished in this administration, due to a fundamental stylistic difference between Robert Lighthizer and previous agency heads. While this change might be good for the USTR, it has made it difficult for reporters to foresee any upcoming policy changes before they actually occur. This lack of access creates chaos in the media when it is coupled with the blitzkrieg-like pace of the administration’s changes in trade policy. Lynch concluded by stating that this issue has been prioritized by the administration, which is attributable to the fact that trade has been one of the few issues that President has maintained a constant position on over the course of several decades.
Mrs. Dwoskin then moved on to her second question, asking how Congress has affected trade policy during this administration. Shawn Donnan answered this by saying that he is curious about two things regarding Congress. The first being if Congress will assert itself differently now that Democrats have control of the House. The second being how the changing grassroots politics of trade will shape Congress’ attitude towards trade issues leading up to the 2020 elections. For though renegotiating trade deals has been one of the signature issues of this administration, polls indicate that trade is more popular than at any time since the 2016 election cycle. Mr. Lynch continued Shawn’s line of thought, saying that he is interested to see if and how a bipartisan consensus towards China develops. If it does, then the President could find himself attacked for being too soft on China. In 2016, he set a high bar for success by using the trade deficit as a metric, and on this front, he has completely failed to deliver. The trade deficit is higher today than when he first took office.
Gina Chon was the next to speak, saying that whenever she speaks with members of Congress, she is always struck by their hesitancy to confront the President on trade, even when tariffs are hurting businesses in their districts. She also noted that there are anti-trade sentiments within the Democratic Party, citing supporters of Bernie Sanders who were vocally opposed to the TPP at the 2016 DNC. She is curious to note how this will affect trade policy and the politics behind it, both at present and in 2020.
Dorothy Dwoskin shifted the discussion to Gina’s final point by asking about the role of the media in 2020. Is there anything the press can do to correct any public misperception of trade issues? Mr. Lynch largely thought no. He stated that while the Washington Post frequently runs stories about how tariffs are affecting ordinary Americans, and that those stories do quite well, he does not think he is changing any minds. The Post’s audience was largely anti-tariff to begin with.
Mrs. Chon felt that the only way for public perception to dramatically change on trade is for the average voter to experience pain because of protectionist trade policies. While tariffs are costing many firms, they can currently absorb those costs and are not in immediate danger of bankruptcy.
Shawn diverged from Gina’s view that drastic pain, such as factory closings, are needed for a change in pubic perception. He believes the general public views trade deficits in the same lens as the President, as a statement of profit and loss. Policy is complex. Relying on explaining it effectively to the public will always be a losing battle. Because of this, he wonders if tariffs might be necessary every few decades to remind the public that it is a bad policy. However, he is relieved to notice that both on Twitter and in his day to day interactions, the public seems to be changing its mind. David Lynch added to Gina and Shawn’s thoughts by saying that, while the backlash to tariffs has clearly begun, it will change further with the economic landscape. While it might be easy for firms to absorb costs now, many will begin to close if the US economy slides into a recession.
Dorothy’s next question pivoted the discussion to the China negotiations. She noted that this administration keeps things close to its chest, and she asked the reporters what signals they look for to see if any changes are about to occur. David responded by echoing that the administration had made things more difficult than usual. He went on to say that in the best-case scenario, an announcement comes from the USTR saying that things are moving along wonderfully and that the two nations are close to a deal. In the worst-case, an announcement comes saying that the two parties are still at an impasse. However, he is doubtful that any announcement will occur in the near future.
Mr. Donnan added to this by shifting to the particulars of what a potential deal might look like. He believes that the type of deal America receives is dependent on how the markets are performing. China is facing a slowdown, and ideally, they will want to be able to make a deal that is presentable to the public and can generate growth. Another factor that needs to be considered is that Trump is coming off of a shutdown defeat, and he does not want to look weak. However, he agrees with Mr. Lynch in that a deal is likely still far off. The announcements so far indicate that the negotiations are still at their early stages, as the two parties do not yet have a common document in place where they are discussing details.
Mrs. Chon stated that another aspect that should be considered is that the Chinses delegation will most likely meet with the President at some point, and she is curious to know how the President’s positions are different from the USTR’s. In addition, she echoed Mr. Donnan’s sentiments about China’s need to present this to their public as a win.
In her next question, Mrs. Dwoskin further pursued this area of discussion, asking what the differences are in how the US and China are framing the negotiations. Mr. Lynch stated that the Chinese get more proactive with their public relations with every passing year, but they are not nearly as aggressive in this area as a Western media institution. He then said that the lack of an organized policy process coming out of the Trump administration as made it easy for the US media pundits to spin whatever message out of the negotiations that they like and present what they think the administration’s position ought to be. Gina Chon added to this by saying that a crucial portion of the media narrative in both countries is the aftermath of the FBI’s arrest of Huawei’s CFO, and that it is fictional to suggest that it will not affect the trade negotiations in any way.
Dorothy moved the discussion to the 232 tariffs, asking how they specifically will play into the negotiations and affect the other items on the administration’s agenda. Shawn Donnan answered first, stating that he believes the steel and aluminum tariffs could negatively affect the trilateral relationship of the US, EU, and Japan at the WTO if the US comes out of these negotiations with the tariffs in place in any form. The reason this could be damaging is because Trump promised Abe on multiple occasions that the tariffs would be removed. Furthermore, Donnan believes that the tariffs negatively affecting the auto industry will likely factor into the negotiations in some form. General Motors is laying off thousands of workers throughout February, and while the layoffs are not directly attributable to the tariffs, the higher cost they bring is certainly not helping the situation. Given that these layoffs are occurring in Midwestern swing states, the President will likely want to produce a deal that is beneficial to the automobile industry and betters his political situation.
Following these comments from Mr. Donnan, the panel moved on to question and answer. The first question asked pertained to how Republicans and Democrats will each frame the narrative of the trade negotiations leading up to the 2020 election cycle. David Lynch answered this by saying that the President will argue that he has accomplished what he promised in 2016 by ending and altering existing US trade deals. The Democrats will respond to this narrative by arguing that the President set the bar high for himself and that he did not accomplish what he promised. They will point to the President’s use of the trade deficit as a metric for how the country is performing on trade and how it has grown during his tenure.
Shawn Donnan posed his own question to the audience, asking if America’s depleted manufacturing communities are better off than when the President took office. The Democrats are going to ask the voters in these communities if the President has delivered on his promises. However, he also argued that trade will become a subsidiary issue by 2020, noting that other events and policy ideas are featured more prominently on the front page.
Gina Chon believes that the rhetoric in 2020 will be predicated on the results of the 2018 midterms. She noted that many traditionally blue districts that voted for Trump in 2016 returned to the Democrats in 2018. She stated that a key driver of this shift has been the blowback to the President’s tariff policies in states such as Michigan, which were crucial to his original victory.
The second question asked was addressed to Mr. Donnan, asking about why he thought trade issues will be out of the headlines by 2020. Shawn responded by expanding upon his views, stating that while the debate over trade might not vanish, it now seems to have been tabled in political debate. The media is consumed by the Russian investigation, and the barrage of leaks coming out of the White House. Simultaneously, policy debate has shifted towards proposals from the Democrats such as Medicare for all and the Green New Deal.
The concluding question was addressed to the panel broadly, asking the reporters if they believe that Trump will follow through with his threat to completely destroy NAFTA. The three panelists all gave variations of the same answer. They all believed that it will most likely not occur, but the possibility cannot be ruled out entirely. If this was to occur, it would most probably be used as political leverage if the President did not have a favorable policy outcome on another issue.
Dorothy Dwoskin, Principal, d2 Strategies LLC
Gina Chon, Washington Columnist, Reuters Breakingviews
Shawn Donnan, Senior Writer, Bloomberg News
David Lynch, Global Economics Correspondent, The Washington Post
To view more details about the event, visit the event page here.