Just a week after he moved into the White House, Donald Trump pulled in the heads of the nation’s auto manufacturers to talk with Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon. At that meeting, Trump told them he was going to do them a “favor” by rolling back the standards for vehicle mileage and emissions. A year later, Donald Trump officially announced he was freezing standards at the 2020 level and would rollback improvements initiated under President Obama. It was a change that became one of Trump’s big bragging points, accompanied by claims that it would create thousands of new automotive jobs.
However, from the beginning, the plan had two issues. Trump’s announcement utterly ignored the law which allows California to set its own standard, and the actual auto manufacturers were less than supportive from the very beginning. By the time more details of Trump’s plan emerged last summer, auto makers had already determined that what Trump was proposing would actually cost the industry 236,000 jobs while turning the United States into a dumping ground for second-rate technology that wouldn’t meet the standards of other nations. On top of all that, Trump’s plan would actually cost consumers $460 billion in extra fuel and more rapid depreciation.
That set the stage for last month, when California announced a stunning deal with four major automakers that pretty much made Trump’s still incomplete plan dead on arrival. Trump’s revenge-driven attack on the standards set under Obama was pointless to begin with, and after the California deal, it was even more pointless. The result is that Trump has been left with a proposal that’s not even worth carrying out, since any new cars will almost certainly be made to meet the standards on the California deal, no matter what Trump says.
As The New York Times reports, this has left Trump producing plenty of his own fumes. The White House has dragged in those automakers who didn’t sign onto the original deal and pushed them to steer clear of joining the rebellion. It’s not working. In addition to the original four—Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, and BWM—Mercedes-Benz is preparing to sign on to the California plan. Others are likely to follow. A sixth unnamed automaker has already stated that it will also meet the tighter Obama-era limits.
That’s caused Trump to demand that agencies accelerate the implementation of his plan. Which could not only leave the U.S. lagging behind the world and facing greater costs, but do what automakers really fear: leave the country with a divided market where selling a car in some parts of the country would mean meeting entirely different standards than in others. With the plan negotiated under Obama, that problem had been avoided. And since that issue alone stands to cost the automakers far more than meeting higher standards, they were happy to join California in finding a compromise.
Trump is furious. The emissions rollback is one of his biggest thumb-in-the-eye issues to both Obama and climate change. But it may be too late this time … too late for Trump.
In signing on to the California agreement, automakers have already agreed to produce vehicles to the higher standards set under the 2012 Obama agreement. If other manufacturers don’t meet that standard, then consumers will face a market that’s not divided by region, but by make. To compete, automakers not matching the new standards would likely have to reduce their prices, destroying any advantage they might get by making a less efficient vehicle. Which is likely to be more harmful than just making vehicles that meet the tougher standards.
And it’s not just California that companies would have to worry about. The original rules under the Clean Air Act give other states the option of signing on to California’s standards, so long as those standards are tougher than the federal standards. At this point, 13 states are also on board with California. Trump is left scrambling to push through his job-killing, climate-killing, consumer-harming plan that may please oil companies … but certainly not anyone else.
To make it a perfect storm of Trump’s incompetence, the senior officials that were in charge of the area have all left in the last two months. That put someone who was a long-term expert in the area and genuinely knew the industry and considerations in charge … but that person was not appointed by Trump. Naturally, that worker was reassigned. At the moment, Trump’s effort is being headed by a 29-year-old former assistant to Mike Pence who has no idea how either the science, the industry, or the legislation works. Every aspect is running behind schedule.
All of this is likely to mean that Trump’s plan will never, ever go into effect. By the time he gets any rule change through, automakers and states will just nod their heads and completely ignore him. That’s a win for the auto industry. A win for consumers. A big win for the environment.
It’s an embarrassing loss for Trump. Just don’t expect him to admit it.