Democrats have pushed President Donald Trump for months to take a tougher stance toward China on trade. But now that Trump has taken their advice, he finds himself on an island with no lifeline from Democrats.
In interviews with a dozen House and Senate Democrats from the Midwest and in leadership, most lawmakers refused to back Trump’s offensive against China, particularly as he’s kept tariffs on U.S. allies.
Even those most willing to praise Trump on trade have been notably reserved.
“We should not be having a multifront war on tariffs,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Trump’s closest Democratic ally on the topic. “I would focus everything on China. And get the Europeans, Canadians and Mexicans to be on our side and focus on China. Because they are the great danger.”
Schumer has repeatedly urged Trump publicly and privately to “stay tough,” including in a meeting at the White House in April. Later Tuesday, the New York Democrat said he doesn’t “fully agree” with Trump’s approach of imposing tariffs on allies as well as China and warned the president from coming up with a “weak solution.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi — like Schumer, a China hawk for decades — told reporters Monday that Trump’s action toward Beijing is “in recognition that something needed to be done.” But she again criticized the president for “antagonizing” Europe with a separate series of tariffs last year instead of trying to join with European Union allies to pressure China.
“I wish him success in the negotiation. But as I say, we have to use our leverage without antagonizing those who are on our side on this,” she said.
Schumer and Pelosi have not been alone in egging Trump on: A number of Democrats who have soured on free trade deals have offered rare praise for Trump’s trade policies. But now that Trump is embroiled in a trade war with China, there’s very little Democratic support for him — and the party is reluctant to give the president any bipartisan cover, particularly if the tariffs end up doing real harm to the economy.
“I still hope he can reach an agreement, but I don’t know. He’s pretty unaware of the damage they’re doing if they don’t get an agreement soon,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has otherwise supported Trump’s tough-on-China approach. “I did for several months. And he just kept doing it wrong.”
“I am conflicted,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “To ignore what China’s done is not my position at all. But this approach with the tariffs I think has been heavy-handed. And doesn’t leave enough openings for the Chinese to find a face-saving way out.”
Trump’s dramatically escalating trade war with China has resulted in a frantic realigning of the two parties on trade. Republicans have typically been free-traders but have declined to go to war against the protectionist president of their own party. Democrats have often been skeptical of free trade, but most have expressed deep dismay with Trump’s policy implementation, even if his trade rhetoric resonates more with them.
And though it’s popular in both parties to challenge China, the resulting economic pain from retaliatory tariffs is not.
“I don’t think he truly understands what he is doing and what chaos that may be causing,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who applauded Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs last year. “I am for being tough on China, but I believe that he is not the least bit knowledgeable about a trade policy, tariff policy or anything else.”
“This really can be fixed by one guy and he’s in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This is self-imposed, it’s unilateral and he can fix it. And he’s got to fix it, our farmers are hurting,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos who runs the House Democrats’ campaign committee and represents a rural Illinois district.
Republicans are far less critical of China than Democrats are, and the GOP is more focused on removing steel and aluminum tariffs on U.S. allies. Even the most fervent Republican opponents of tariffs, like Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), say that the “jury is still out” on whether Trump’s China strategy can be effective.
But Democrats from states that have lost manufacturing jobs amid rising globalization are not in favor of the president’s stance toward China. It’s a bet, in part, that Trump is unlikely to get a transformative deal, so there’s little reason to back him publicly while Democrats’ constituents are in such pain.
“He’s not going into this fight with allies. It isn’t targeted. It’s just kind of across-the-board tariffs,” said Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, one of two Democrats in the chamber up for reelection in states that Trump won. Asked whether he opposes Trump’s latest China tariffs, he said: “Yeah. I think the way he has done it has not been thoughtful at all.”
“What I’ve got a concern about is going it alone,” said Sen. Doug Jones. The Alabama Democrat faces an even tougher reelection bid than Peters faces. “At the same time we started this with China, we were also kicking our European allies in the shins and we were kicking Canada in their shins and we were kicking Mexico.”
To Republicans, Democrats sound like they are finding excuses to oppose Trump. Not one Democrat interviewed by POLITICO fully embraced the president’s trade policies on China while he also maintains a combative stance toward U.S. allies
“No matter what he says or does, today’s congressional Democrats will demonize, vilify and attack him,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is himself conflicted about Trump’s China strategy. “Their opposition at the end of the day is not based on policy. It is based on a visceral hatred for the man.”