The White House is focusing on its bread-and-butter issue of trade this week as it tries to shift the spotlight away from the Russia controversy dogging the administration.
President Trump’s top trade negotiator on Monday rolled out the administration’s strategy for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a big campaign promise, while an announcement on new steel tariffs could be made in the coming days. Both moves would deliver on Trump’s promise to crack down on what he says are unfair trade practices.
Seeking to drive home its message, the White House kicked off “Made in America Week” to promote products made in the United States.
Trump on Monday attended a splashy showcase of products from all 50 states at the White House. In one of several light-hearted moments, Trump climbed into a Wisconsin-made firetruck parked on the South Lawn.
“Where’s the fire? I’ll put it out,” Trump said.
Past attempts to keep Trump on message with themed weeks have failed, and it’s far from certain the effort will draw attention away from the firestorm surrounding the federal probe into whether his associates colluded with Russia’s effort to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.
The White House’s focus on American-made products also opened Trump up to attacks, forcing aides to parry criticism of the president and first daughter Ivanka Trump for manufacturing many of their products overseas.
The Trump Organization has its clothing and home goods made in countries such as China, Mexico, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Ivanka Trump’s clothing line also relies on factories in China, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer dodged several questions about the inconsistency between the president’s words and his actions, telling reporters it would be “inappropriate” for him to comment on the president’s businesses.
He did say that as a businessman, Trump has a “unique” understanding of regulations and other conditions that make it difficult for companies that want to make their goods in the United States.
“In some cases, there are certain supply chains or scalability that may not be available in this country,” Spicer said during an off-camera briefing. “I’m not going to comment on specific products, but I will tell you the overall arching goal is … to grow and invest here in the United States and to grow U.S. workers here.”
Trump said his administration’s actions, such as pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and renegotiating NAFTA and a free trade agreement with South Korea, would help achieve that goal.
During a speech at the White House, Trump joked that the head of Omaha Beef wanted to “kiss me so badly” after learning his administration finalized an agreement to sell American beef in China.
“That’s why I’m here. That’s one of the primary reasons you elected me and [Vice President Pence],” he told an audience of business executives and staff in the East Room. “I know you’re going to see one of the great differences.”
He said ending what he called “stupid trade” would grow jobs and raise wages in the U.S. “We’re going to end up having a level playing field. I don’t want to say anything more than level, but if the playing field were slanted a little more toward us, I would accept that also, OK?”
The White House hopes to shine a light on those policies, which aides often complain are ignored by the media, with more events this week. Trump plans to sign a declaration on Wednesday and speak about American-made products. On Saturday, he will travel to Newport News, Va., to attend the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier.
But even on Monday, there were signs the president’s focus remained on the Russia probe.
He sent out a tweet defending his eldest son, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpAmid Russia storm, Trump pivots to Made in America Dem donors buzzing about Kamala Harris The normalcy of tech innovation MORE Jr., for meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised damaging information on then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonAmid Russia storm, Trump pivots to Made in America Dem donors buzzing about Kamala Harris Russian who attended Trump Jr. meeting: ‘I just have a talent for media’ MORE.
“Most politicians would have gone to a meeting like the one Don jr attended in order to get info on an opponent. That’s politics!” Trump wrote.
The meeting has caused a massive headache for the White House, providing the clearest sign yet that Trump’s associates were willing to accept help from Russia to win the election. One of the emails to Trump Jr. referred to “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Trump is said to be frustrated by the meeting, as well as with the media attention it has received. His tendency to lash out has frequently foiled the White House’s effort to drive a consistent policy message.
Last month, the president’s attack on MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski drowned out messaging surrounding “Energy Week.”
Other times, the themed weeks have been overtaken by events.
Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on Capitol Hill overshadowed the White House’s “Infrastructure Week.” But Comey may have never testified if the president had not fired him over his handling of the Russia probe.
Trump’s decision to announce that he does not have tapes of his conversations with Comey, meanwhile, overshadowed “Technology Week.”