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To sway Trump on trade, businesses turn to cable TV

admin 141 May 15, 2018
Comedian Ben Stein.
M. Phillips | WireImage | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — When President Trump tunes into "Fox & Friends" on Monday morning, he may see a familiar face delivering a gentle warning that tariffs are "B-A-D economics."

In a last-ditch attempt to persuade Mr. Trump to back away from his trade approach, the National Retail Federation has enlisted Ben Stein, the comedic economist famous for his role in the 1980s film "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," to offer Mr. Trump economic advice via advertisements that will air on the president's favorite TV network.

"There's really an audience of one in this decision making," said David French, chief lobbyist of the National Retail Federation, which represents the retail industry. "For the president, this will seem like a winning strategy for a long time until it isn't."

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Mr. Trump's steel and aluminum tariffs and his threat of levies on Chinese goods have spurred concern across industries, including agriculture, automobiles and retailing, which worry they will be caught on the losing end of a trade war. Businesses say Mr. Trump's approach risks derailing America's strong run of economic growth with a self-inflicted mistake on trade, one that will ultimately cause harm to consumers and the economy.

They hope to pressure Mr. Trump at a crucial moment. American companies will have a chance to air their concerns about the proposed tariffs on Chinese goods during three days of hearings that the United States trade representative will hold beginning on Tuesday. Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, China's top economic official, is also expected to visit Washington — possibly as early as this week — for more trade talks with top administration officials. And the White House is in the midst of trying to reach a deal with Canada and Mexico to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement, a deal that has become integral to many American industries.

In comments at the White House on Friday, Mr. Trump reiterated that Nafta has been a "terrible deal" and said that Canada and Mexico were disappointed to be losing the "golden goose" that has been the United States. Republican lawmakers have said that the framework of a deal needs to be revealed this month if Congress is going to vote on it this year, putting pressure on the administration to either agree to a revised pact or follow through with Mr. Trump's threat to abandon the 1994 agreement.

Whether an ad campaign can sway Mr. Trump on tariffs remains to be seen, but there is evidence that it has had some impact in the past. A little more than a year ago, retailers took to the airwaves to try to kill a type of broad tax on imported goods, known as the "border adjustment tax," that Paul D. Ryan, the House speaker and a Wisconsin Republican, was pitching as a centerpiece of the Republican tax plan. The National Retail Federation blanketed television networks with catchy anti-B.A.T. commercials that claimed that the proposed import tax would hit consumers in their wallets.

Eventually, Mr. Trump and Republican leaders in Congress cooled to the idea and it was shelved.

The retail industry hopes to persuade Mr. Trump by once again talking about the impact on consumers' wallets. The group projects that Mr. Trump's tariffs could cause the price of Chinese-made televisions to rise nearly 25 percent. It predicts that if China retaliates with punitive measures of its own, thousands of jobs could be lost in states won by Mr. Trump in the 2016 election.

Because so much of the power to make decisions on trade is concentrated in the White House, lobbyists are working to get Mr. Trump's attention directly rather than by canvassing congressional committees. The six-figure purchase will place the commercial on "Fox & Friends," the Fox News morning show that Mr. Trump watches regularly and often quotes on Twitter. It will also be appear on the comedy show "Roseanne," which seeks to appeal to Trump voters, and on "Saturday Night Live," which regularly mocks the president with impersonations by Alec Baldwin.

"You have a president, it's no secret, who likes to watch television," said Evan Tracey, senior vice president of National Media Research, Planning & Placement, a Republican media firm, who noted that advertisers used to try to reach President Barack Obama, a sports fan, on ESPN. "From an advertising standpoint, you always want to sort of go where the ducks are."

He added: "If you want to get your message in front of President Trump, the strategy to go to cable news is not a bad one."

Retailers are not the only ones seeking to soften Mr. Trump's trade instincts. In recent weeks, the manufacturing, solar and farming lobbyists have all unveiled their own advertising campaigns to push back against tariffs.

"I'm supportive of the Trump administration, but I have a lot of concerns about current actions that have been taken on trade and tariffs," said Brent Bible, an Indiana soybean farmer in a national television ad produced by Farmers for Free Trade. "The fact that China is our No. 1 soybean customer makes us very vulnerable."

That ad appeared on Fox, CNN and MSNBC in Washington and in Florida, where Mr. Trump often spends weekends at his Mar-a-Lago golf resort.

Mr. French, of the retail industry group, said it recruited Mr. Stein for the advertisement because his part in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" resonates with a broad demographic. The group shot the 30-second clip in early April and has been waiting to use it when the prospect of a trade war reaches an inflection point.

While trade policy can be abstract, a bespectacled Mr. Stein, standing before a chalkboard with a lesson on "Smoot-Hawley," a 1930 protectionist tariff act that helped fuel the Great Depression, tries to make the costs of levies as simple as possible.

"Tariffs raise taxes on hard-working Americans," he says in his notorious monotone. "It's not complicated."