Breakfast with Tom Donohue: ‘real trade war’ would harm economy

At a Monitor Breakfast, US Chamber of Commerce leader Tom Donohue talked trade, tariffs, and why - after 21 years at the helm - he's not talking retirement. 

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
US Chamber of Commerce leader Tom Donohue engages with reporters at a Monitor Breakfast in Washington, Sept. 19.

Tom Donohue, head of the US Chamber of Commerce, is an old friend of the Monitor’s. But don’t call Mr. Donohue old. And certainly don’t suggest, even after his 21 years as the Chamber’s president and CEO, it may be time to retire.

But that’s what happened toward the end of our Monitor Breakfast with Donohue on Sept. 19. Ben Brody of Bloomberg News asked if he had thought about a successor. Donohue, ever the feisty Irishman, had a ready quip on the matter.

“If you see me laying in a box with flowers around it, I’m only thinking about it,” he said. The room erupted in laughter.

Donohue has been telling that joke for years. And truth be told, it’s easy to see the well-compensated octogenarian staying right where he is for a while. He’s in the middle of the action, as the leader of the nation’s largest business lobbying group at a time of high-stakes battles over tariffs and immigration.

“We, the Chamber, communicate with the White House every day,” Donohue says. And he personally interacts with President Trump regularly, whether at the White House – just across Lafayette Park from the Chamber’s imposing headquarters – or elsewhere.

Talk of trade wars dominated the breakfast. The United States economy is strong, and “the single biggest threat facing [it] is a real trade war,” Donohue said. “I don’t think we’re there quite yet.”

Earlier in the week, Mr. Trump had announced a 10 percent tariff on $200 billion in Chinese imports, and warned he might tax all imported Chinese goods. China retaliated with tariffs of its own. Donohue agrees with the need to confront China on its trade practices, including theft of intellectual property, but he disagrees with the Trump administration’s approach.

“If what you’ve decided to do is make it expensive for people to sell things here, it shouldn’t be the US consumer that’s paying for it,” Donohue said.

What’s the alternative? The Washington Examiner highlighted Donohue’s suggestion that Trump use export controls rather than tariffs to influence China’s behavior.

In his coverage, the Monitor’s Laurent Belsie reported on how the booming US economy gives Trump the leeway to play hardball with China.

Other reporters focused on the uncertain future of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which links the US, Mexico, and Canada. “If Canada doesn’t come into the deal, there is no deal,” Donohue said.

Here’s the C-SPAN video of the breakfast – Donohue’s eighth with the Monitor.

Afterward, we sat and chatted for several minutes; I heard about his five grandchildren and his views on education. Nowadays, he says, colleges aren’t teaching enough history, government, or logic.

“So you can run a computer and add and subtract, but can you think?” Donohue said.

A strong education system means a lot to business, but also to Donohue personally. Brooklyn-born, with the accent to match, he comes from humble origins and overcame a struggle with mild dyslexia.

Talking to Donohue reminded me of our recent breakfast with Richard Trumka, the former coal miner who rose to become president of the AFL-CIO labor federation – another powerful interest group headquartered steps from the White House. Like Donohue, Trumka agrees with Trump’s goal of addressing trade, but not his approach. And both Donohue and Trumka want more legal immigration, not less. The US economy, blessed with low unemployment, needs more workers. Both men, too, are heavily invested in the November midterms.

Donohue, especially, represents a class of older workers who stay on the job not because they need the money but because they enjoy the work.

Before Donohue left, I told him he can’t retire yet. He agreed: “I’ve got too many things to do.”

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