‘Brett was involved’: Inside Supreme Court nominee’s work for Bill Clinton probe

‘Brett was involved’: Inside Supreme Court nominee’s work for Bill Clinton probe

President Donald Trump has waged war on leakers — but in nominating Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, the president has picked someone well-versed in the swampy art of off-the-record briefings and anonymous quotes.

Kavanaugh spent nearly four years working for Kenneth Starr’s independent counsel probe of President Bill Clinton two decades ago. A sampling of the Starr office’s internal files available at the National Archives indicate Kavanaugh helped craft aspects of Starr’s communications strategy and interacted directly with the news media himself.

Starr infamously took an expansive view of permissible contact with the media, allowing discussions about issues related to the ongoing investigation — disclosures that other prosecutors view as improper or ill-advised.

While Starr had spokespeople, “he also had attorneys like Kavanaugh contact people who might have information to come to the office and offer to guide the press about the work of the office,” said former Iran-Contra prosecutor John Barrett, now a law professor at St. John’s University.

Writer and businessman Steven Brill, who set off a firestorm in 1998 with a cover story in his magazine, Brill’s Content, on Starr’s alleged leaks to the press, said Kavanaugh needs to offer a more detailed account of his interactions with reporters during the Whitewater probe.

“If what he did was not improper, why didn’t he do it on the record? The point is they all knew it violated rule 6(e),” Brill said, referring to a federal court rule protecting grand jury secrets. “Brett was involved.”

The questionnaire Kavanaugh submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday acknowledges his exchanges with the media during his time on Starr’s staff. The submission also appears to acknowledge that he has sometimes spoken to reporters on a not-for-attribution basis.

In the questionnaire, Kavanaugh notes interviews for seven books — six of which focused at least in part on the independent counsel probe.

“In addition to the interviews listed above, I have also spoken to reporters on background as appropriate or as directed,” the nominee adds.

The judge also notes that he helped Starr prepare his own memoir.

Kavanaugh’s allies said his exchanges with the media were innocuous and shouldn’t be described as leaks — and reiterated that the young attorney, who went to Starr’s office from a clerkship with Justice Anthony Kennedy, was acting at the request of his boss.

“He was assigned by Starr to talk to the press in several areas, including to explain legal issues,” said one person who is close to Kavanaugh and spoke on condition of anonymity. “That was authorized and at Starr’s request to deal with the media on those issues so they could have the office’s perspective. … This was not someone leaking. This was someone asked by his boss as part of a strategic approach dealing with the arguments they were making in court going on background or off the record to talk through various things.”

Former Newsweek media critic Jonathan Alter resurfaced the issue after Kavanaugh’s nomination to succeed Kennedy, who announced his retirement last month. Alter initially accused Kavanaugh of having “routinely skirted or violated” grand jury secrecy rules while on Starr’s staff — though Alter later said he shouldn’t have said it was routine.

“Twenty years ago, I had indications that Kavanaugh was in contact with reporters and because it involves potential violation of federal law, those contacts need to be thoroughly explored in the confirmation process,” Alter told POLITICO.

Starr did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but other veterans of his office defended Kavanaugh’s contacts with reporters.

“My sense then as it is now was that it was not about leaking, but about intelligence gathering,” said former Starr probe attorney Paul Rosenzweig, now with the conservative R Street Institute think tank.

He added that Kavanaugh needed to have some degree of engagement with the press because his primary assignment at the outset of his tenure was to re-investigate the death of White House lawyer Vincent Foster.

The apparent suicide spawned a slew of conspiracy theories, largely propagated by right-wing media outlets and commentators — some obscure and some well-known, including talk show powerhouse Rush Limbaugh. “Ken’s view was that he needed to reopen [the Foster probe] and chase down every lead,” Rosenzweig added. “Many of us thought it was overkill and kind of unnecessary, but if you’re actually going to put conspiracy theorists to rest you sort of have to take them seriously.”

Trump has railed against the publication of information concerning special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian operatives seeking to interfere with the 2016 election. The president has also fulminated against anonymously sourced stories about infighting within his administration, recently undertaking a housecleaning effort aimed at ridding his staff of supposed leakers.

More details about Kavanaugh’s role are expected to emerge in the coming weeks as an estimated 20,000 pages of Kavanaugh’s records from his time on Starr’s staff are processed for public release as part of the lead-up to his confirmation hearings.

Senate Democrats are pressing for disclosure of those records to develop a clearer picture of Kavanaugh’s work for Starr. California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Wednesday that she expects to see “at least 1 million pages of documents from his tenure in the White House and as a political operative.”

“Fully understanding Mr. Kavanaugh’s role on the Ken Starr investigation and as a political operative is critical for senators to evaluate his judgment and views on potential issues that could come before him on the court,” said one Democratic Senate aide. “Given the current Mueller investigation, his statements about presidential accountability and allegations that Mr. Kavanaugh leaked sensitive investigative information to the press, clearly, there are significant questions about his commitment to upholding law enforcement standards.”

Kavanaugh’s questionnaires for his appeals court nomination a decade ago say that among the topics on which he offered legal advice during his time in Starr’s office was analyzing the office’s “Rule 6(e) obligations” — legal jargon for determining what is and is not covered by grand jury secrecy. He acknowledged that work again in the questionnaire submitted Friday for his Supreme Court nomination.

Other documents from and about Kavanaugh are already public in the files of other Starr aides. They show Kavanaugh’s involvement in strategizing how to rebut media criticism of the Foster investigation.

Clinton’s personal attorney David Kendall began complaining publicly about alleged leaks of grand jury information in June 1997, while Kavanaugh was working for Starr. But Kavanaugh transitioned out of the office in November, just before the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal broke — prompting Kendall to escalate his complaints by taking them to a federal judge in Washington.

In February 1998, Starr’s office filed 96 declarations from staff members denying any involvement in Lewinsky-related leaks. “With today’s filing, everyone in the Office of Special Counsel, is on record denying, under penalty of perjury, responsibility for disclosing to the news media any of the [grand jury] material,” Starr deputy Robert Bittman wrote.

The sheaf of signed denials includes several prominent lawyers, including current Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was on Starr’s staff at the time. Rosenstein completed the declaration denying his involvement even though he also left the office in October, several months before the Lewinsky story broke and the related Kendall complaint rolled in.

Kavanaugh, who had left the office at that point but later would return, was not among the Starr lawyers and investigators who filed declarations under penalty of perjury in February 1998, but a person close to Kavanaugh said Wednesday that Kavanaugh believes he completed at least one declaration during his tenure confirming that he was not a source for leaks that were fought over in court during the Starr proceedings.

Kavanaugh returned to Starr’s staff in April 1998 and wrote much of the office’s report to Congress that led to Clinton’s impeachment. Accounts of Kavanaugh’s jousting with others in the office about the contents of that report appear in books by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Duquesne University president Ken Gormley. Kavanaugh left Starr’s staff for good in December 1998, about two months after the report was sent to the House.

Much of the leak litigation bogged down in disputes over precisely what information is covered by grand jury secrecy. In 1999, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a narrow definition that deemed many of the alleged disclosures by Starr’s office not to be breaches of court rules. However, the court noted that disclosures not determined to breach grand jury secrecy may be “prohibited by other Rules or ethical guidelines.”

Despite that ruling, one Starr aide, spokesman Charles Bakaly, was subsequently ordered to stand trial on a criminal contempt charge concerning a 1999 New York Times story on the possibility of a presidential indictment. U.S. District Court Judge Norma Holloway Johnson ultimately acquitted Bakaly of lying to the court but made clear her ire over the Starr office’s conduct and its interactions with the media.

The perception that the Starr operation was a gushing font of leaks helped fuel bipartisan dissatisfaction with the statute governing independent counsel investigations and contributed to its expiration in 1999. Regulations the Clinton administration put in place to replace the law reflect that criticism by stressing the need for special prosecutors to go by the book.

“A Special Counsel shall comply with the rules, regulations, procedures, practices and policies of the Department of Justice,” say the rules under which Mueller was appointed last May. “He or she shall consult with appropriate offices within the Department for guidance with respect to established practices, policies and procedures of the Department, including ethics and security regulations and procedures.”

In jousting over the alleged leaks, Starr pointed to public statements by officials like then-Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, seeming to bless greater transparency “in cases involving well-known people.”

Most controversially, Starr contended that inaccurate statements about his office justified making statements that would otherwise be against Justice Department rules that limit such comments about ongoing investigations.

“That would be true except in case of a situation where what we are doing is countering misinformation that is being spread about our investigation in order to discredit our office and our dedicated career prosecutors,” Starr told Brill in 1998. “I think it is our obligation to counter that kind of misinformation. … And it is our obligation to engender public confidence in the work of this office.”

Kavanaugh seemed to take a narrower view in a law review article he wrote during his hiatus from Starr’s office. He proposed ditching independent counsel law provisions allowing a public report and instead urged permitting only a “classified” report to Congress. “The ordinary rules of prosecutorial secrecy should apply to evidence gathered during an independent counsel investigation,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Rosenstein has taken a similar stance regarding the Mueller probe. He’s condemned former FBI Director James Comey’s public comments on the Hillary Clinton email investigation and insisted that the Justice Department limit public comments about Mueller’s investigation.

“We do not try cases on television or in congressional hearings,” Rosenstein said earlier this month. “We follow the rule of law, which means that we follow procedures, and we reserve judgment.”

Mark Tuohey, who supervised Kavanaugh early in the Starr investigation, said that view also prevailed early in the Whitewater probe but seemed to fall by the wayside as the time went on. “If there was one rule during that year it was: This was not a case we were developing in the press,” Tuohey said. “What happened thereafter, I don’t know.”

Tuohey said he thinks that as time wore on Starr’s office got too involved in responding to attacks in the media, but he doesn’t consider Kavanaugh to blame.

“I’ve always felt strongly that prosecutors dealing with confidential grand jury info and decision-making about criminal matters ought not to be talking to the press about this stuff,” Tuohey said. “I know things got out of hand a bit later on. … but I certainly wouldn’t put any of that in Brett Kavanaugh’s lap. He handled himself very professionally.”

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Trump’s impulsive decrees weigh on Pentagon

Trump’s impulsive decrees weigh on Pentagon

President Donald Trump’s flare for the unpredictable has taken a toll on his defense leaders, handing them orders and major policy shifts with little or no notice — ranging from his transgender ban, a military parade and a separate Space Force to his musings about reducing U.S. troop strength in Europe or intervening in Venezuela.

This week added the specter that another capricious decree may be in the works, when the Russian military reported that President Vladimir Putin and Trump had reached a private agreement at their Helsinki summit to join forces to rebuild war-torn Syria. Such a deal would mark a major change for the U.S. troops battling the Islamic State, who are barred by law from cooperating with Russian troops fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime.

The top U.S. commander in the region, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, told reporters he has received “no such direction at this point,” nor has he requested permission to do so. “I have not asked for that at this point and we’ll see what direction comes down.”

Previously, surprise directives from the commander-in-chief have demanded significant attention from top officials such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. And they have almost never involved what the Pentagon considers top priorities.

Former officials also say Trump’s impulsive decrees undercut the administration’s effort to reverse the White House micromanaging of the military that commanders grumbled about during the Obama administration.

Before Trump, “you certainly never had a directive coming straight from the president via Twitter,” said a former senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military officials he knows. “That adds an extra layer of instability and stress to an organization that is already under a lot of stress.”

Loren Schulman, who served in the Pentagon and on the National Security Council under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said past administrations had “a policy process where you don’t spring really big changes on the Pentagon with no warning at all.”

“My guess is that Mattis and Dunford have to spend a lot more time shepherding the development of answers to Trump’s questions and then dealing with the press fallout,” added Schulman, who’s now with the Center for a New American Security.

Schulman noted that Obama also caught his top Defense Department leaders off guard in 2011, when he announced major cuts to the military budget just months after a long-scheduled Pentagon strategy review. “This was a total shock” to the defense secretary at the time, Robert Gates, whom Obama informed just a few days before giving a speech on the cuts, Schulman recalled.

But Trump has thrown out a series of curveballs to his commanders. He demanded the ban on transgender troops via an early-morning tweet, for example, and offered the Pentagon little or no notice before announcing his Space Force and canceling military exercises in South Korea.

Pentagon officials downplayed the unusual nature of Trump’s orders.

A spokesman for Dunford, the Joint Chiefs chairman, downplayed the unusual nature of Trump’s orders.

Dunford’s “focus and that of the Joint Staff is on supporting their priorities in a timely and effective manner, regardless of whether it’s a long-standing issue or emerging requirement,” said Col. Patrick Ryder, Dunford’s spokesman. “This is what the Joint Staff exists to do.”

Tom Crosson, a spokesman for Mattis, said that “the secretary’s priorities for the department are aligned with the administration.”

Here are some of Trump’s distracting directives and how the Pentagon has responded to them.

The parade

In January, Trump told top military leaders during a visit to the Pentagon to start planning a parade in the nation’s capital to showcase U.S. military might.

The Pentagon has since picked Veterans Day weekend to hold the parade, which the White House budget director has told Congress is expected to cost up to $30 million. (CNN recently reported a figure of $12 million.) It’s unclear where the money will come from, and Trump’s order came too late for parade funding to be addressed in the defense budget.

Democratic lawmakers have sought to block the parade, which some say would be an unnecessary expense. One House Armed Services Committee member, Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas) introduced the memorably named PARADE Act—“Preventing the Allocation of Resources for Absurd Defense Expenditures.”

Mattis dodged a question early this year when asked whether the parade would divert resources from other priorities. He said only that the order reflected “the president’s respect, his fondness for the military.”

Troops in Europe

The most recent hot potato Trump has tossed to the military came last month, when he reportedly told military leaders he was surprised at how many troops the United States has based in Germany (some 35,000) and questioned whether so many were really necessary, a development first reported by The Washington Post.

The Pentagon is reviewing the size of its troop presence in Germany, but it says it is doing so only as part of routine assessments that its overseas headquarters conduct. It says it has not received any formal request from the National Security Council to draw up troop-cut plans.

The prospect of White House-mandated troop cuts in Germany has alarmed European allies. But it has also raised worries about disruptions to ongoing U.S. counterterrorism operations, especially in Africa, many of which are run out of Germany.

A Venezuela war plan?

In a strange turn for a president who campaigned on the promise to “never send our finest into battle unless necessary,” Trump last summer mused publicly about using U.S. troops for an entirely new mission: imposing order in the chaotic South American nation of Venezuela.

“We are all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away,” Trump said in public remarks in August. “We have many options for Venezuela, including possibly a military option if necessary.”

A recent report from the Associated Press revealed that the day before his public remarks, Trump raised the issue with then-national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and other officials, briefly arguing when a surprised McMaster laid out a list of ways military action in Venezuela could backfire.

The next week, Pentagon spokesmen struggled to explain how the military was responding to Trump’s comments, saying that “standard military planning” was ongoing. “If called upon we would have a military option for the president,” a spokesman said, but no formal request had come from the White House.

A few months later, Trump shocked Latin American heads of state when he again broached the possibility.

“Rex tells me you don’t want me to use the military option in Venezuela,” the president told the leaders of Argentina, Panama, Brazil and Colombia, referring to his then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to a POLITICO report. “Is that right? Are you sure?”

Halting military exercises

Following his summit last month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump promised to halt joint U.S.-South Korean military “war games,” which he blasted as expensive and “provocative.”

The president’s pledge took the U.S. military headquarters in Korea by surprise, although a Pentagon spokesman said Trump had discussed it ahead of time with Mattis. It took another six days for the Defense Department to announce what it was doing to follow through on Trump’s statement by canceling an annual exercise known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian.

Translating the president’s expansive, vaguely worded promise into a manageable policy probably took significant effort inside the military, said Lindsey Ford of the Asia Society Policy Institute, a former Pentagon official.

The lag-time between the president’s speech and the Pentagon’s announcement “says to me that there were a lot of conversations behind the scenes where people figured out how they could meet the spirit of what Trump was saying while minimizing the potential damage,” she said.

Ford added that while the military likely had various options on the shelf for delaying or scaling back exercises in Korea as part of negotiations, the suddenness of Trump’s declaration was unusual.

“Normally there’s a front-end process where [the U.S. headquarters in Korea] develop options and send them for the policy makers to think about,” she said. Instead, “they basically had to try to invent a back-end process for how you implement. That’s the chaos of how this administration works.”

Space Force

During a public event last month, Trump again took the Pentagon leadership by surprise when he announced he was “directing” the military to “begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces.”

Trump then turned to Dunford and told him to “carry that assignment out.”

“We got it,” Dunford responded.

Trump had previously expressed interest in the idea of a Space Force of some sort. But for months, when members of the House Armed Services Committee were pushing for the establishment of a separate uniformed service focused on space, the military had been pushing back strongly — particularly the Air Force, which now has the space portfolio.

Mattis wrote to one congressman that he worried a new branch might lead to “a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations” rather than helping anything. And two military reports on possibilities for a space branch were already due to Congress at the time of Trump’s pronouncement.

But a public order from the president to his top general couldn’t be ignored.

“There is no question in our mind the direction he’s given, so we have begun that planning effort. We’re moving out smartly,” Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein said of the Space Force at a news conference this week. Goldfein said Trump’s attention to space had created a “huge opportunity” and a “national-level dialogue about where we’re going in space,” adding, “I love the fact that the president is leading that discussion.”

When pressed on whether he thought a separate space service is really needed, though, Goldfein demurred. “That’s part of the dialogue we’re having,” he said.

“I think the president’s comments basically silenced the opposition from the Air Force,” said Todd Harrison, director of the defense budget and aerospace projects at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Harrison predicted that Trump’s order will empower factions within the Pentagon that support the creation of a space branch, but that department leadership might “continue to oppose it by dragging their feet” and trying to “wait out the clock.”

The transgender ban

The Pentagon responded in a similar way when Trump tweeted last summer that he wanted all transgender individuals banned from the military “in any capacity.”

After the White House followed up the tweet with formal guidance, Mattis ordered a six-month policy review headed by his top deputy and generals from each of the military branches.

The Pentagon won’t say how much of those leaders’ time the review took up, or how much it cost.

Critics and supporters alike have characterized Mattis’ approach as slow-rolling Trump’s request to overturn Pentagon policy dating back to 2016. While the reviews were underway, the existing Obama-era policies that allowed troops to be open about their transgender status — and in some cases receive government-funded sex-reassignment surgeries — remained in place.

The review ended with Mattis largely acquiescing to Trump, recommending in a memo to the president that “persons with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria” be “disqualified from military service except under limited circumstances.”

Trump followed through in March by formally ordering a ban based on Mattis’ recommendation — although that policy is now being contested in several court cases.

But the former senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the military sometimes had to move more quickly than it wanted to meet Obama’s demands, too — including on the 2016 policy that the new Trump order reverses. “Often it was social issues where Obama wanted to move more quickly than the department was prepared to, like the end of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and gender integration,” the policy that Trump is now trying to reverse, the former official said.

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Trump’s new midterm threat: A trade war smacking voters

Trump’s new midterm threat: A trade war smacking voters

President Donald Trump’s trade wars could become a major political drag for Republicans, with job losses and price increases piling up just as voters head to the polls in November.

Trump jolted markets once again early Friday when he said he’s prepared to impose penalties on some $500 billion in Chinese goods regardless of the consequences that might ensue, economic or political. “Look, I’m not doing this for politics,” the president said on CNBC. “I’m doing this to do the right thing for our country.”

But market analysts, industry experts and economists warn that the economic fallout of the president’s tariffs — those that are already in effect and those he’s threatening to impose — is only going to intensify over the coming months and could reach a peak around election time.

“We’re already hearing complaints now from companies, so by the time we get to the midterms, you’re going to be hearing governors, mayors, Congress complaining about jobs, about cost increases, about problems,” Carlos Gutierrez, the former Commerce secretary under President George W. Bush, told POLITICO. “The question is: Will that be strong enough to offset the idea that we have to get tough on our trading partners, and that our jobs are being stolen overseas?”

It takes months for most consumers to feel the impact of tariffs, but as the fall approaches, everything from groceries to appliances could start to cost more at major retailers across the country. Democrats could use these price increases as a political cudgel against Republicans in swing districts as they try to take back control of Congress.

Trump has so far suffered little political blowback for his tariffs and trade threats, saying that he is simply following through on promises he made during the campaign to crack down on trading partners, even close allies, and put America first. Since March, he has imposed blanket tariffs on nearly all imports of steel and aluminum and placed penalties on $34 billion in goods from China, a total likely to increase to $50 billion next month and into the hundreds of billions later this year.

In return, countries have retaliated with tit-for-tat duties on everything from U.S. agricultural goods to Kentucky bourbon and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, aiming to sway top Republican lawmakers by hurting constituents in their districts.

But Trump and his party could soon begin to face consequences as companies in the coming months start reporting lower earnings, reassessing their supply chains and holding back on investment, all of which will begin to ripple throughout the economy and could lead to a slowdown or full-blown recession, experts say.

If all of the tariffs that have been proposed take effect, they would bring down long-run U.S. GDP by 0.47 percent — about $118 billion — in the long term and cost more than 364,000 jobs, a new analysis from the Tax Foundation shows. The International Monetary Fund also warned this week that trade tensions could cut global output by some $400 billion by 2020, and that the U.S. is “especially vulnerable” to effects of an international slowdown.

Price increases would vary by product, ranging anywhere from a few cents on a can of beer or soup to around $6,000 on a family car, if the administration moves forward with auto-specific tariffs it has threatened.

Even if Trump doesn’t move forward with any additional duties, the uncertainty caused by his policies and rhetoric is leading some companies to begin pulling back investments in research and development. They’re afraid that if they develop products for foreign markets, those markets might no longer be accessible to them in six months or a year.

The agricultural industry has been particularly vulnerable: Countries like Mexico have begun to diversify their import markets by buying more corn and soybeans from Brazil instead of the United States, in an attempt to reduce their dependence on a country that could erect new trade barriers at any time based on the president’s whims.

And while the administration has so far taken pains to avoid hitting consumers directly, leaving products like flat-screen televisions and cellphones off the list of products facing tariffs, they will be unable to continue to do so as the list of goods caught in the crossfire begins to expand.

“If this escalates into a full-blown trade war, the innocent victims are going to be American consumers,” said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation. “That’s what we’d like to avoid.”

As midterm campaigns heat up, vulnerable Democrats and Democratic super PACs are already using the president’s trade war — and the Republican Party’s reluctance so far to challenge him on it — to frame their opponents as complicit in an escalating trade battle with no end in sight.

The Democrat-aligned group American Bridge launched an effort Thursday aimed at targeting Republican candidates for, as the group says, “failing to stand up to Trump’s trade war.” In one of two launch ads, the group targets Josh Hawley, who is running to unseat Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, for saying that he supports Trump’s goals on trade and feels that the president is doing the right thing.

“Hawley welcomed this trade war,” it reads at the end of a minute-long spot featuring clips of local farmers and manufacturers complaining about the harmful effects of Trump’s tariffs. “Now Missouri families are paying the price.”

The president has so far ignored increasing calls from Republicans in Congress to back down on trade, or at least to begin pursuing dialogue with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The White House insisted this week that trade talks with Beijing are ongoing, but there are no formal discussions on the books and the two sides have not met at the ministerial level since Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross traveled to China early last month. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will have informal opportunities to talk with his Chinese counterparts at the G-20 finance ministers’ meeting in Buenos Aires this weekend, but no formal bilateral meetings are expected.

Instead, Trump has sought ways to expand his tariff crusade: Beyond ratcheting up duties against China, he has directed the Commerce Department to conduct investigations examining whether to impose penalties on imports of cars and car parts, as well as uranium. And he has continued to frustrate Canada and Mexico by refusing to back down from what they see as unreasonable demands in the ongoing renegotiation of NAFTA.

Moving forward with either car tariffs or a NAFTA withdrawal before November elections would be an “enormous political mistake,” said Bill Reinsch, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If he does that, you’ll see an immediate sharp consumer impact, which I think will translate into a political reaction. Everything else will be like sand leaking out of the bag.”

But even the slow accumulation of economic effects could build up enough by November that consumers will be feeling the pain. It might be difficult for everyday Americans to recognize at this point how the tariffs will affect them, given that many of those proposed are not yet in effect, so in the meantime, the retail industry is working to educate consumers that “there are greater consequences, and price increases and real impacts” that could be coming in the near future, Shay said.

“That’s going to create a lot more attention around the things that right now sound a lot more hypothetical,” he added.

So far, at least, polls show that Trump appears to still have the support of the bulk of Republican voters when it comes to tariffs. Nearly three-fourths, or 73 percent, of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who responded to a Pew Research survey out this week said they felt increased tariffs would benefit the country. Roughly the same percentage — or 77 percent — of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents felt the opposite.

But reaction overall is trending increasingly negative: Nearly half, or 49 percent, of all respondents to the Pew poll said they feel tariffs are a bad thing for the country, up 4 percentage points from a similar survey done in May.

The partisan split bodes well for Trump, who has so far shown little willingness to heed anyone’s advice over trade policy beyond his own and who will likely barge into the midterms with the same protectionist messages that helped him win over laid-off factory workers and struggling farmers in 2016.

Democrats might try to point to a worsening economy to say that Trump’s policies are wreaking havoc across middle America, but the White House has already begun to fire back that the long-term payoff will be worth it.

“It’ll be those two competing narratives” during midterm campaigns, said Gutierrez, who now chairs the board of the National Foreign Trade Council. “It all depends on how bad the numbers get and how much pain there is that can’t be offset by simply saying, ‘We’re doing this for the country and we’re getting tough on our trading partners, so it’s worth the pain.’”

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