Trump was angry and ‘unglued’ when he started a trade war, officials say

WASHINGTON — With global markets shaken by President Donald Trump's surprise decision to impose strict tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, the president went into battle mode on Friday: "Trade wars are good, and easy to win," he wrote on Twitter.

But the public show of confidence belies the fact that Trump's policy maneuver, which may ultimately harm U.S. companies and American consumers, was announced without any internal review by government lawyers or his own staff, according to a review of an internal White House document.

According to two officials, Trump's decision to launch a potential trade war was born out of anger at other simmering issues and the result of a broken internal process that has failed to deliver him consensus views that represent the best advice of his team.

On Wednesday evening, the president became "unglued," in the words of one official familiar with the president's state of mind.

A trifecta of events had set him off in a way that two officials said they had not seen before: Hope Hicks' testimony to lawmakers investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 election, conduct by his embattled attorney generaland the treatment of his son-in-law by his chief of staff.

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President Trump hosts business session with U.S. governors
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President Trump hosts business session with U.S. governors
U.S. President Donald Trump holds a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker listens as U.S. President Donald Trump holds a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (R) applauds as U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to hold a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump looks on as Washington State Governor Jay Inslee (R) engages him during a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump takes a sip of water during the 2018 White House business session with governors in the State Dining Room of the White House on February 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Washington State Governor Jay Inslee (L) listens to participants as U.S. President Donald Trump holds a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Florida Governor Rick Scott and U.S. President Donald Trump cross paths during a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House policy advisor Stephen Miller (L) speaks with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker after U.S. President Donald Trump held a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump speaks during the 2018 White House business session with state governors in the State dining Room of the White House on February 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Florida Governor Rick Scott listens to speakers as U.S. President Donald Trump holds a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump arrives for the 2018 White House business session with state governors in the State dining Room of the White House on February 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 26: Senior Advisor to the President Stephen Miller attends a business session with state governors hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump in the State Dining Room at the White House February 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. The National Governors Association is holding its annual winter meeting this week in Washington. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 26: Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R), Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson (2nd R) and fellow state governors stand and applaud at the conclusion of a business session hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump in the State Dining Room at the White House February 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. The National Governors Association is holding its annual winter meeting this week in Washington. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 26: State governors and members of U.S. President Donald Trump's cabinet attend a business session in the State Dining Room at the White House February 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. The National Governors Association is holding its annual winter meeting this week in Washington. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Trump, the two officials said, was angry and gunning for a fight, and he chose a trade war, spurred on by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, the White House director for trade — and against longstanding advice from his economic chair Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

Ross had already invited steel and aluminum executives to the White House for an 11 a.m. meeting on Thursday. But Ross, according to a person with direct knowledge, hadn't told the White House who the executives were. As a result, White House officials were unable to conduct a background check on the executives to make sure they were appropriate for the president to meet with and they were not able to be cleared for entry by secret service. According to a person with direct knowledge, even White House chief of staff John Kelly was unaware of their names.

By midnight Wednesday, less than 12 hours before the executives were expected to arrive, no one on the president's team had prepared any position paper for an announcement on tariff policy, the official said. In fact, according to the official, the White House counsel's office had advised that they were as much as two weeks away from being able to complete a legal review on steel tariffs.

In response to NBC News, another White House official said that the communications team "was well-prepared to support the president's announcement" and that "many of the attendees had been in the White House before and had already been vetted for attendance at a presidential event." A different official said of the decision, "everyone in the world has known where the president's head was on this issue since the beginning of his administration."

There were no prepared, approved remarks for the president to give at the planned meeting, there was no diplomatic strategy for how to alert foreign trade partners, there was no legislative strategy in place for informing Congress and no agreed upon communications plan beyond an email cobbled together by Ross's team at the Commerce Department late Wednesday that had not been approved by the White House.

No one at the State Department, the Treasury Department or the Defense Department had been told that a new policy was about to be announced or given an opportunity to weigh in in advance.

The Thursday morning meeting did not originally appear on the president's public schedule. Shortly after it began, reporters were told that Ross had convened a "listening" session at the White House with 15 executives from the steel and aluminum industry.

Then, an hour later, in an another unexpected move, reporters were invited to the Cabinet room. Without warning, Trump announced on the spot that he was imposing new strict tariffs on imports.

By Thursday afternoon, the U.S. stock market had fallen and Trump, surrounded by his senior advisers in the Oval Office, was said to be furious.

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