What happened to pro-business President Trump?

Rick Newman
Columnist

He claims to have created more than 1 million jobs and sent stocks soaring. Yet President Donald Trump is increasingly antagonizing business leaders, who are getting bolder in defying him. Investors may be souring on Trump as well, with markets getting nervous about political chaos in Washington and an escalating confrontation with North Korea.

After Trump threatened deportation for 800,000 “Dreamers” brought to the United States illegally as children, Microsoft President Brad Smith responded with fightin’ words. About two dozen Microsoft employees are Dreamers, and if the government tries to round up any of them, “it’s going to have to go through us to get that person,” Smith told NPR. The Business Roundtable, a major corporate lobbyist, said it “strongly opposes” Trump’s action on Dreamers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, another business group, is developing a new policy in support of immigration in order to lobby against the new restrictions Trump is pushing.

This comes after several prominent CEOs quit Trump’s advisory councils, following the president’s controversial remarks in August on racial violence in Charlottesville, Va. Trump has since threatened to cut off trade with China and other nations that also trade with North Korea, which would be an economic calamity. Trump seems to have made a deal with Democrats in Congress that will avert a nerve-wracking showdown over raising the government’s debt ceiling–but only for a few months, so that issue will be back rattling markets before long.

So is Trump pro-business or not? In reality, he seems to favor some businesses more than others, based on how their interests align with his political agenda. Tech firms dependent on highly skilled workers — including many immigrants — have found no friend in Trump, so far. Energy and chemical firms, on their other hand, are likely to win big from Trump’s promise to slash regulations. Here’s how the winners and losers are shaping up:

Trump policies that are friendly to business:

Tax cuts. Who knows if Congress can deliver, but Trump has begun pushing hard for a package of tax cuts, including a reduction in the corporate rate, which Trump wants to slash from 35% to 15%. Tax cuts are at the top of corporate America’s wish list, and the 9% run-up in stocks this year suggests investors still think tax cuts are coming.

Deregulation. Trump has ordered the executive branch to kill two regulations for every new one proposed or enacted, and this is beginning to make an impact. Bloomberg reports that Trump has dialed back regulations in ways that benefit builders, chemical firms and e-cigarette producers. Energy firms should benefit from a softer touch at the EPA. That might explain why Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical, considers Trump and his team “the most pro-business administration since the Founding Fathers.”

Infrastructure spending. This is on the back burner, but Trump aides say there’s still a plan to spend more on roads and bridges. That would mean more revenue for construction firms and other businesses.

Trump policies that are unfriendly to business:

Immigration cutbacks. Tech firms including Microsoft, Apple, Tesla and Alphabet have been outspoken in their opposition to Trump’s effort to reduce legal immigration. Economists are on their side, saying America actually needs more immigrants, not fewer, to keep the labor market healthy and foster growth. The Dreamers technically are not legal immigrants, since they were undocumented when parents or family members snuck them into the country. But 800,000 Dreamers have earned work permits under a program President Barack Obama began in 2012, and most work now. So if Trump rescinds those permits and goes as far as deporting the Dreamers, he’ll be shifting several hundred thousand people out of the labor force at a time when there are 6 million open jobs in America and many employers are already struggling to find workers.

Trade restrictions. Trump’s bark has been worse than his bite on trade, so far; he has threatened steep tariffs and other restrictions without yet following through on those threats. But efforts to revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement are now underway, bringing closer the likelihood of new protectionist measures that could disrupt trade, which most businesses oppose. And Trump recently suggested that all U.S. trade with China be suspended if China doesn’t help rein in North Korea’s nuclear program. That’s impossible, but even modest new limits on trade with China could sink profits for some multinationals, force prices higher on many everyday goods, and provoke retaliatory measures from China. Trump could cause real damage to the economy if he follows through on his protectionist promises.

Raising the stakes on North Korea. Trump isn’t the main antagonist here; North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is. But Trump’s fiery rhetoric and threats of war aren’t calming the situation and may, in fact, be further encouraging a reckless young leader who clearly craves the world’s attention. There are no good options on North Korea, but there are a few terrible ones, and Trump’s combative hyperbole is more likely to spook markets than reassure them.

A border wall. Trump said in late August that if Congress doesn’t fund the wall he wants to build along the southwest border, he will shut down the government, presumably by vetoing the spending bills that would keep it running. This is another tactic that bothers business leaders. They don’t want to see a government shutdown, which could generate controversy and ill will that makes tax reform even harder.

So what is Trump, on balance? Pro-business or anti-business? At the moment, it’s fair to say he’s lucky the economy is strong enough to withstand the political whiplash swirling out of Washington. If he can coax tax cuts through Congress, while backing down on protectionism and immigration threats, CEOs will warm up to him again. But if tax cuts stall the way Republican efforts to reform health care did, markets will grow more sensitive to Trump’s disruptive habits, and protests from corporate America will grow louder. America’s first businessman CEO may not be so good for business after all.

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman