Donald Trump is apparently using his trip to Tokyo as yet another opportunity to whinge about the U.S. trade deficit while raising questions about his familiarity with basic facts about the American economy.
Speaking before a group of business executives on Monday, the president criticized Japan for taking advantage of the U.S. on trade, particularly when it comes to cars. This was itself nothing new. Trump has long complained about the fact that while Japan’s automakers sell millions of cars in the U.S. every year, Detroit’s big three are essentially shut out of Japan, where just 15,000 American vehicles were sold last year.
Then, because this is 2017, things got dumb. According to Bloomberg, the president of the United States started begging Japan’s car companies to consider making their vehicles on American shores—something they’ve been doing since the 1980s. “Try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over. That’s not too much to ask,” Trump said. “Is that rude to ask?”
I mean, it’s not rude. It’s just strange—because Japanese car companies already build an enormous number of vehicles stateside. Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and their brethren have dozens of manufacturing plants across the country, and according to the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association, 75 percent of Japanese brand vehicle sold stateside were assembled in North America. (Some percentage of those come from Mexico, which wouldn’t exactly satisfy Trump, but you get the idea.)
It’s not as if this is a recent development, either. Usually, the knock on Trump’s understanding of Washington-Tokyo relations is that they’re locked in the 1980s, when Japan was considered the rising threat to U.S. manufacturing supremacy. But the country’s automakers started setting up shop here back in the 1980s, after President Reagan strong-armed Japan’s government into limiting its car exports. Here’s what the New York Times had to say about the trend back in 1985:
Instead of flooding America with cars made at home, and risking new protectionist measures, the Japanese are ”going native” - opening up American plants and moving quickly toward the day when they will be, collectively, the nation’s fourth major auto maker, ranking with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.
Trump presumably understands that Japan’s carmakers have some manufacturing presence in the United States—he bragged on Twitter when Toyota and Mazda announced they would build a joint plant here and thanked Toyota for investing $1.3 billion in a Kentucky facility. But it’s not at all clear he understands the extent of the production that happens in the U.S. Back in 2015, he suggested to the Detroit News that he’d essentially browbeat the Japanese into manufacturing cars here, as if they weren’t already. “Until you open your markets, you’re not selling any more cars over here,” Trump said. “That’s going to force people to build in the United States.”
Perhaps someone should ask Trump where he thinks Toyota builds all those Camrys it sells in California. He might be pleasantly surprised to learn the answer.
Update, Nov. 6, 2017: With a full transcript of Trump’s remarks now available, Aaron Blake of the Washington Post has accused me of unfairly cherry-picking a quote that is less bizarre in context. Here are the key paragraphs (I am bolding the same passages as Blake).
When you want to build your auto plants, you will have your approvals almost immediately. When you want to expand your plants, you will have your approvals almost immediately. And in the room, we have a couple of the great folks from two of the biggest auto companies in the world that are building new plants and doing expansions of other plants. And you know who you are, and I want to just thank you very much. I want to thank you.
I also want to recognize the business leaders in the room whose confidence in the United States — they’ve been creating jobs — you have such confidence in the United States, and you’ve been creating jobs for our country for a long, long time. Several Japanese automobile industry firms have been really doing a job. And we love it when you build cars — if you’re a Japanese firm, we love it — try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over. Is that possible to ask? That’s not rude. Is that rude? I don’t think so. (Laughter.) If you could build them. But I must say, Toyota and Mazda — where are you? Are you here, anybody? Toyota? Mazda? I thought so. Oh, I thought that was you. That’s big stuff. Congratulations. Come on, let me shake your hand. (Applause.) They’re going to invest $1.6 billion in building a new manufacturing plant, which will create as many as 4,000 new jobs in the United States. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.
So, what do we learn from the full quotes? Not much new. Trump understands that the Japanese make some of their vehicles here. Yet he tells the assembled executives to “try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over,” suggesting that some have not tried it. This is odd, given that almost every major Japanese carmaker that sells in the U.S.—Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Subaru, and Mitsubishi—already has at least one manufacturing plant on American soil. The exception, Mazda, is planning a joint facility with Toyota that Trump himself is very excited about. If Trump is in fact aware of all this, and is still telling a bunch of auto execs to “try” building their cars in America, it’s weird. But even based on the full quote, it’s simply unclear whether Trump understands the extent of the Japanese auto industry’s U.S. manufacturing presence, which has implications for our trade policy.
This all brings up a larger question of how we should read the president’s statements. The most charitable way to interpret Trump’s comment was assume he really meant “try building more of your cars in the U.S.” But at this point, it’s not clear what we gain by giving Trump the benefit of the doubt. The president has repeatedly shown a lack of basic familiarity with major economic and public policy issues, and I think it’s generally incumbent on journalists to point out instances where he may, yet again, be out of his depth, rather than offer him an excuse by reinterpreting his sentences to make sense.