What kind of political animals will be making U.S. trade policy in the Trump administration? The tone of the campaign suggests that the president-elect will act like a bull in the China shop, but his bellicose roars may instead presage a subtler strategy; it is also possible that his own business interests will influence the direction of U.S. policy. His abandonment of free trade and other Republican orthodoxies will force members of that party to decide whether to act like principled elephants or obedient sheep, even while Democrats choose between being opportunistic jackasses or stubborn mules. And in deciding where to direct its trade negotiations, the Trump administration may aim not just for big game like the United Kingdom and Japan, but could also have a few black swans in its sights. These might include such surprising partners as India, Taiwan, the Philippines, MERCOSUR, and perhaps even Russia.
What Kind of Political Animal Will Trump Prove to Be?
The Chinese calendar tells us that 2016 was the year of the monkey, and observers of the presidential campaign might well conclude that those old Taoists were on to something. That same zodiac designates 2017 as the year of the rooster, a rather fitting description for a man who often starts his mornings with a Twitter rant. Depending on the precise strategy that Trump and his people adopt, however, the coming season of presidential trade politics may bear a closer resemblance to the year of the bull, the goat, or the pig.
Option 1: The Bull in the China Shop
Trump’s first option, and the one most clearly implied by his rhetoric, is to charge like a bull through that China shop that we know as the trading system. Should he do so, many of the norms, rules, and institutions that seem permanent could prove to be remarkably fragile. Almost the only things that can be said with near certainty about trade policy under a Trump administration are that it will be rhetorically mercantilist, being focused more on outcomes (exports and jobs) than on opportunities (open markets and nondiscrimination), and that he will gleefully challenge the status quo. Trump has repeatedly shown that he prizes his image as a disruptor and an outsider, views unpredictability as a virtue, and revels in challenging even elementary principles of constitutional law and statecraft. There is no reason to expect a man who does not feel bound by the rules to accept uncritically the twin foundations on which U.S. trade policy has rested since the time of Franklin Roosevelt, namely that protectionism is economically self-defeating and that U.S. security interests are best served by an open trading system.
If Trump decides to overturn the system as we know it, U.S. trade law will offer him the means to do so almost unilaterally. He may not only walk away from current negotiations but undo agreements that are already in place, and can make vigorous use of trade laws that allow a president to restrict imports on a variety of pretexts.
One peculiarity of American treaty practice is that presidents have greater powers to abrogate agreements than they have to implement them. Congress has the last say in the approval of new international agreements, whether they are handled formally as treaties (thus requiring the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate) or as congressional-executive instruments (as in the case of those trade agreements that are approved under trade promotion authority), but the legislative branch can be largely bypassed if a president wishes to do away with an existing pact. The only strict rules constraining his authority to pull out of NAFTA, the WTO, or other pacts and institutions are those in the agreements themselves. Congress may need to enact conforming amendments for the withdrawal to take full effect, and injured industries may bring cases to the courts, but it is difficult to foresee congressional critics or private complainants prevailing over a determined executive. Canada and Mexico clearly understand this point, as demonstrated by the almost obscene celerity with which they signaled their willingness to renegotiate NAFTA.
If Trump wants not only to knock down existing agreements but to raise new barriers he could revive some long-dormant provisions of U.S. trade law. One is the global safeguards law (section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974), which was frequently invoked from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s to impose tariffs and quotas on fairly traded but injurious imports. Another option is the reciprocity law (section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974), under which the U.S. Trade Representative has the authority to retaliate against foreign countries’ practices that violate (self-defined) U.S. rights. This law was employed in many high-profile disputes in the 1980s and early 1990s. Trump also promises to declare China a currency manipulator under section 3004 of the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988, a designation that would trigger bilateral negotiations and might eventually lead to sanctions. These and other unilateral instruments appeared to have been defanged by the results of the Uruguay Round (1986-1995), which effectively “reformed” safeguard actions out of existence, replaced unilateral action under section 301 with a much-strengthened Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) in the WTO, and seemed to render other statutes moot.
The laws nonetheless remain on the books. The only real restraint on a president’s use of them, apart from some procedural requirements (e.g., that the U.S. International Trade Commission advise on safeguards), has been the preference shared by three successive administrations for multilateral over unilateral solutions to trade disputes. One could well imagine immediate and vigorous challenges in the DSB if the Trump administration were to reverse that preference and take a “broad-shouldered” approach to the exercise of these powers, but that might only make the U.S. threats to withdraw from the WTO move from implicit to explicit.
Option 2: The Goat in the Living Room
Another possibility suggests that Trump is pursuing a goat-in-the-living-room strategy. Josef Stalin is reputed to have pioneered a political technique whereby a leader manages to deflect opposition to one unpalatable initiative by tying it to another, even less desirable outcome. According to this (probably apocryphal) tale, Stalin is supposed to have ordered both an increase in taxes on the peasantry and a requirement that all peasant families keep a goat in the living room. Some time later he rescinded the second half of the order, and people were so relieved to shoo the goats out of their homes that they almost forgot about the taxes. It is similarly possible that Trump’s threats are intended more to create chaos and leverage than to telegraph his real intentions, and that the ultimate effect of his rhetoric will not be wanton destruction but verbal irritation (i.e., it makes America grate again).
We have already seen two post-election examples of how Trump’s threats can be effective, starting with the aforementioned Canadian and Mexican offers to renegotiate NAFTA. There is no chance that Mexico would have agreed to pay for a wall, and the wall itself may end up being composed as much of fencing and metaphor as it is of brick and mortar, but the Mexicans may nonetheless feel relieved if all they have to do is adjust the terms of NAFTA on a few of Trump’s pet issues (e.g., his claim that Mexico’s value-added tax system amounts to an export subsidy). The deal that Trump brokered with Carrier offered another manifestation of this strategy. He cajoled this heating and air-conditioning company to reverse its plans to move a furnace plant from Indiana to Mexico, saving a thousand or so jobs at a cost of $7 million in state government tax incentives. Trump employed at least two threats to secure this deal: to impose tariffs or other restrictions on any units that Carrier might produce in Mexico and export to the United States, and to deny future military contracts to Carrier’s larger parent company (United Technologies). He has followed up this victory by warning in a series of tweets that “any business that leaves our country for another country” will face retribution in the form of a 35% tax on any imports it seeks to bring back into the United States.
Trump may hope that other U.S. partners will be so dismayed by similar acts of intimidation — whether that means threatening to tear up existing FTAs, or to withdraw from the WTO, or to take all manner of WTO-illegal action — that they can be bullied into passively accepting other, less apocalyptic outcomes. Or to shift the metaphor, it is possible that the U.S. negotiating style under Trump will amount to a variation on the good cop, bad cop game that American statesmen have used so often (and so successfully) for generations. The difference comes in who plays the bad cop: That role has traditionally fallen to Congress, but the next U.S. Trade Representative might instead point to the White House as the home of the madman who must be appeased.
Option 3: A Pig at the Trough
Both options reviewed above start from the assumption that Trump will be motivated by the desire to produce results for his political base. Yet a third possibility is that his priorities will be set, or at least influenced, by how they affect his own empire. This issue drew remarkably little attention during the presidential campaign, apart from failed efforts to force the release of Trump’s tax returns, but now receives close scrutiny. That is due in no small measure to the stunningly tone-deaf approach that Trump and his children have shown during the transition, as exemplified by incidents that individually appear trivial but collectively raise troubling concerns (e.g., Ivanka Trump sitting in on a meeting between her father and the Japanese prime minister and Trump urging British politician Nigel Farage to help settle a dispute between one of his golf courses and Scottish authorities). Legal scholars generally concur that the statutes governing conflicts of interest do not apply to the president, but also point to concerns over appearances in general and the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution in particular.
Although Trump has pledged to withdraw from his businesses, many commentators wonder how any paper barriers between himself, his children, and the family holdings can prevent the cross-contamination of public and private business. The greater danger to Trump is that even his supporters may perceive him to have gone back on his promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption. If the Democrats recapture a majority in the House of Representatives (see below) they could conduct hearings during the 116th Congress (2019-2020) on real or perceived corruption on the part of Trump, his family, or his associates. Trump need only think back to Republican investigations of Hillary Clinton’s emails to realize just how damaging this sort of political theater can be.
There are at least three ways that Trump’s business interests and executive responsibilities could come into conflict. The most problematic would be if Trump were to take actions that directly benefitted his businesses. One would hope that he would be able to avoid tawdry temptations, and yet some of Trump’s own statements imply otherwise. This point is taken up in the concluding section of this analysis, reviewing the possibility that Trump’s choice of FTA partners might be influenced by the localities of his business interests. A second possibility is that foreign governments will cross that line in order to curry favor. That might involve anything from booking rooms at the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. to extending favorable treatment to Trump-affiliated facilities in their countries. Some foreign leaders have already signaled a willingness to play this game. See for example the decision of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to appoint real estate magnate José E.B. Antonio, who is building Trump Tower Manila, as a special trade envoy to the United States. Yet a third possibility would go in just the opposite direction, in which foreign actors — state or non-state, national or sub-national — might try to pressure or punish Trump by subjecting his buildings to anything from lawsuits and regulatory harassment to protests, vandalism, and terrorism. Given Trump’s thin skin and vindictive nature, one can only imagine how he might respond the first time protestors in some foreign country decide to trash (or worse) a tower with his name on it.
 For example, NAFTA Article 2205 provides that, “A Party may withdraw from this Agreement six months after it provides written notice of withdrawal to the other Parties. If a Party withdraws, the Agreement shall remain in force for the remaining Parties.” The somewhat wordier counterpart to this provision in WTO Article XXXI likewise provides for a six-month notification period.
 Section 122 of the Trade Act of 1974 allows the president to impose tariffs and/or quotas for up to 150 days against countries with large balance of payments surpluses. There are also circumstances in which he might use the expansive powers granted under the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977. Still more instruments would allow him to restrict imports under section 406 of the Trade Act of 1974 (in cases where imports from a Communist country are alleged to cause market disruption) and section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 (which allows restrictions on imports for reasons of national security).
 A president cannot impose restrictions under the safeguards law unless the USITC first determines that rising imports are a substantial cause of serious injury. But while the commission then recommends what specific remedies might be imposed, presidents have great leeway in accepting, rejecting, or modifying those recommendations.
 Text of the tweets at Ylan Q. Mui, “Trump warns of ‘retribution’ for companies that offshore jobs, threatening 35 percent tariff” (December 4, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/12/04/trump-warns-of-retribution-for-companies-that-offshore-jobs-threatening-35-percent-tariff/?utm_term=.2c5d15800296.
 Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution provides in relevant part that, “[N]o Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”