The good news for President Trump is that some of the air has been deflated from the fake Russia narrative as a result of CNN’s embarrassing retraction of several recent baseless stories and the revelation that the original “Russian dossier” was cooked up by Democratic operatives on Hillary’s payroll. Coupled with the devastating Democratic loss in the Georgia special election (where the party establishment had devoted vast resources in making the race a referendum on Trump), this gives the president a big political boost at just the right time.
But another narrative could quickly arise if the administration isn’t careful: the first rejection of a nominee requiring Senate confirmation emboldening the president’s enemies and demoralizing his allies. Word is that the nomination of former New Jersey congressman Scott Garrett to be Chairman of the Export-Import Bank is facing substantial industry opposition, which may be sufficient to peel off enough Republican votes to hand the administration a humiliating defeat just at the time when the president needs to keep up the momentum to get the Trump agenda moving again.
That would be especially puzzling, since such a defeat would be both avoidable and self-inflicted. Among the surprises in President Trump’s interview with the Wall Street Journal a few months ago was his full-throated endorsement of the U.S. Export-Import Bank and his pledge to fill long-standing vacancies on the Bank’s board that have crippled its effectiveness. Not only did he indicate that he would get the bank up and running with a quorum for the Board (making Ex-Im fully functional for the first time since 2015) he took the opportunity to shoot down the standard arguments from opponents of the bank who claim Ex-Im is in the business of “subsidizing” big American firms that need no assistance at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. “First of all, lots of small companies are really helped—the vendor companies,” the president argued, referring to the large U.S. supply chain directly impacted by Ex-Im’s financing assistance for purchases of big ticket items, which is often the target of intense criticism by those who see export credit assistance as “crony capitalism” with government picking the winners and losers. “More important is the fact that other countries give [export credit assistance]” he elaborated, which means that American companies “lose a tremendous amount of business.” Far from costing taxpayers, he emphasized, “it actually makes money…it could make a lot of money.”
Trump’s comments countering long-standing criticisms of Ex-Im from its opponents make it all the more perplexing that, just days later, the administration nominated one of the Bank’s most vocal critics, former New Jersey congressman Scott Garrett, to be Ex-Im Chairman. A founding member of the same Freedom Caucus that has recently been the target of the president’s ire, Garrett lost reelection last November when business support for him evaporated in the wake of reports that he refused to pay dues to the National Republican Congressional Committee because they were “actively recruiting homosexual candidates and had supported gay candidates in the past.” Not only did Garrett oppose Trump in the GOP primaries, he denounced the party’s nominee less than a month before Election Day after the leak of the Access Hollywood tape, stating that VP nominee Pence should replace Trump at the top of the ticket—just the type of disloyalty that has sunk other names floated with the president for key administration positions. Trump loyalists within the administration see the appointment as part of a disconcerting pattern that has emerged in which the personnel office promotes Never-Trumper types at the expense of qualified Trump partisans who are on board with the president’s agenda.
Garrett was not just an opponent of the Export-Import Bank when he served in Congress, he was among the most flamboyant and extreme in his rhetoric. He voted twice against reauthorizing Ex-Im, saying that it “embodies the corruption of the free enterprise system.” In opposition to a measure to reauthorize Ex-Im in October 2015, Garrett relished the opportunity to drive a stake through the heart of the Bank and make sure it was out of business for good. “We have the opportunity to save capitalism from cronyism…we have the opportunity to keep the Export-Import Bank out of business, and we should take that opportunity…The Export-Import Bank transformed the role of government from a disinterested referee into a biased actor that uses your taxpayer dollars to tilt the scales in favor of its friends.”
House Financial Services Chairman and Garrett ally Jeb Hensarling, a perennial foe of the Bank, reacted to the nomination in jubilant terms, stating that Garrett’s nomination is an opportunity to “safeguard taxpayer dollars and put an end to the bank’s well-documented management failures… With Ex-Im so captured by special interests, the president was right to choose a principled leader who can safeguard the agency against further mission creep, fraud, waste, and abuse.”
With longtime proponents of shutting down Ex-Im rejoicing, it is an understatement to say that stakeholder companies who export their products abroad are wary of Garrett’s nomination. Until Garrett’s name was formally sent to the Senate just last week, rumors swirled around town that the administration was reconsidering, given the intensity of industry opposition. After all, it was rumored during the transition that Heritage Action had written up an agenda to wind down the operations of the Bank and that Garrett was their preferred candidate to carry out that plan. Now that Ex-Im supporters appear to have won their battle for President Trump’s backing as he has explicitly recognized the value of export credit assistance in the face of China’s aggressive use of that economic tool to boost their own exports, the fear is that Bank foes have slipped through a nominee for chairman dedicated to dismantling Ex-Im under the guise of “reform.”
If that is indeed the case, President Trump needs to swiftly recalibrate and nominate another candidate as Chair of Ex-Im, one who shares his vision regarding the bank. Otherwise, he will lose a bipartisan opportunity to achieve a major part of his agenda by promoting American exports, all for the sake of a bitter confirmation fight over someone whose views of the bank and its mission are diametrically opposed to his own. Getting the Ex-Im Bank up and running to promote American exports fits perfectly with the Trump agenda and should be an easy bipartisan win for the administration. Right now, the last thing the president can afford is an entirely avoidable high-profile Senate defeat of a nominee who divides his own caucus.