Howes: Trump impeachment move clouds auto agenda

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Detroit’s automotive agenda in President Donald Trump’s Washington may just have gone poof.

The opening of an impeachment inquiry against the president is likely to immobilize an administration fueled by chaos and to fixate congressional Democrats building their case against the president — not get them to pass trade deals or clarify emissions policies sought by automakers mulling billion-dollar bets on the future.   

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference Wednesday.

Democrats who've largely been slow-walking Trump's economic, trade and environmental policies now have zero incentive to give the president a win on things that resonate with automakers and unions operating in the industrial Midwest.

One day after Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed plans to begin an impeachment inquiry into the president, Trump used a United Nations visit to move markets with a quip that a trade deal with China may come "sooner than you think." The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed nearly 163 points higher as the Standard & Poor's 500 gained more than 18 points.

Team Trump already is using the launch of a formal impeachment inquiry to argue Democrats will be hamstrung in their ability to do anything but pursue angles toward impeachment: "“I don’t think they can do any deals," the president said during a meeting Wednesday with Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

Whether a bitterly divided Washington can coalesce around, say, a replacement to the North American Free Trade Agreement remains to be seen. Even as impeachment fervor reached new highs, Democrats insisted efforts to get the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement passed still are on track.

“There is no reason, based on what happened yesterday, to think that there’s any deterrents that will hold us back,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., said. His message: "proceed with optimism."

Seriously? That's unlikely, given the deepening rancor between the White House and congressional Democrats. Plus, Pelosi's vow to honor her caucus's concerns about the proposed North American trade deal increases the likelihood no NAFTA 2.0 deal will pass the House this session — unless the president's political predicament persuades him to compromise with Democrats if it means getting a win on trade.

Detroit's automakers, and their foreign rivals operating in the United States, shouldn't hold their collective breath. Trump's mounting political problems are likely to hobble his administration's push to deliver 2016 campaign promises before the 2020 election. And some of the biggest ones affect the auto industry.

Meaning the stakes in talks to settle the United Auto Workers strike against GM, moving into its 11th day, are growing because the political outlook is clouded with even more uncertainty. What evidence will be produced by the House committees charged with driving the impeachment inquiry? How will policy-making be affected by distractions related to the investigation?

Will a president dogged by media and political pressure since announcing his run in 2015 suddenly be able to summon the concentration he's yet to display to shepherd high-profile policy through a divided House? More pointedly, will he have as many Republican allies in Congress six months from now as he does today?

It all depends on where the first impeachment inquiry in a generation leads. What's certain, however, is that the industry the president is banking on to help him repeat his 2016 win in the Midwest ended up taking several metaphoric shots to the chin from Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum, his trades battles with Canada, Mexico, China and the European Union, and his badgering about investment decisions.

For now, smart money in business and investor circles is betting that impeachment in the Democratic House would not become a conviction in the Republican-controlled Senate — an assumption that implicitly assumes all of the case's unknowns are known. They aren't.

Before Pelosi's announcement Tuesday, Trump's best case for re-election was grounded in the economy. Stocks markets trading near historic highs; unemployment rates for most demographic groups near historic lows; wages rising, albeit not across the board.

All of that is a good environment to peddle automotive metal to would-be customers. But the policy drift likely to accompany an impeachment drive risks making uncertainty just about the only certainty in the Trump era. It's exhausting. 


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.