President Donald Trump speaks during event at the White House...

President Donald Trump speaks during event at the White House on May 9 on ending surprise medical billing. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Jim Watson

President Donald Trump tweeted last December: "I am a Tariff Man. When people or countries come in to raid the great wealth of our Nation, I want them to pay for the privilege of doing so."

"It will always be the best way to max out our economic power … MAKE AMERICA RICH AGAIN."

Skeptics note that tariffs are taxes that typically get passed along as higher costs to domestic manufacturers and consumers. Retaliation by China has punished U.S. farmers, who now get new billions in federal relief.

But tariffs are neither weird nor wild. They were imposed from time to time by Trump's predecessors.

It is a fact of life in government that Republicans and Democrats use tariffs and other taxes as instruments to achieve desired social and economic results.

So far, dire warnings from various free-market advocates, economists and lobbyists that Trump’s tariffs would destroy economic growth and kill the auto industry have rung hollow.

But it is in the political arena that one feature of imposing tariffs appeals especially to Trump: He can set them without congressional approval and cancel them at will.

Negotiating legislation under regular constitutional methods has proved a weak spot for the administration. Tariffs, however, are carried out under “emergency” executive  powers.

Taking steps that don't require outside approval of course satisfies a career real-estate operator and reality-show performer who is accustomed to dictating decisions and is prone to hyping the results.

Trump claims an exaggerated  $100 billion a year in tariff revenues.

That doesn’t address research from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Princeton and Columbia universities showing administration trade policies and tariffs reduced U.S. income at a rate of $1.4 billion per month as of November last year.

His latest move, if it occurs, would impose tariffs on goods from Mexico purportedly as an incentive to keep Central American migrants from crossing the southern U.S. border.

Having already failed to negotiate legal immigration reform with Congress, Trump grasped at various other measures, some stymied or abandoned, to stem the illegal influx.

None are working. 

It remains to be seen if Trump follows through on the current threat or just seeks to show resolve before the audiences of Fox, OAN and AM talk radio.

His own trade advisers seem to oppose linking tariffs to migrant influx, which suggests the president may be bluffing.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) warns against the move. “Trade policy and border security are separate issues," he said, calling for other ways to pressure Mexico "without imposing a financial burden on U.S. consumers or harming American jobs."

CNN anchors said Thursday that Trump was dropping a "tariff bomb" on Mexico. Stating it that way might serve Trump's purposes by overrating the force and certainty of the announcement.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador advised against "the use of coercive measures, saying: "We are fulfilling our responsibility in immigration policy."

Trump’s exact conditions for escalating or withdrawing the threatened tariffs based on refugee numbers have yet to become clear.

But strategic clarity isn’t always required when it comes to Trump and tariffs.

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