JFK’s Dangerous Playbook for Trump
... There’s something more than a little ominous about Trump’s threat during the campaign to punish individual companies. During the campaign, Trump warned: “Any business that leaves our country for another country, fires its employees, builds a new factory or plant in the other country, and then thinks it will sell its product back into the U.S. without retribution or consequence, is WRONG! There will be a tax on our soon to be strong border of 35% for these companies.”
Apart from the policy consequences of the proposal—trade war, anyone?—lies the specter of massive government power aimed at specific private entities. That has mostly been out of bounds for presidents, and takes on an especially chilling note when you remember that the incoming president, over his career, has been particularly enthusiastic about attacking and humiliating any foe or critic.
But if you really want to worry about where the limits might lie when a president decides to go after individual companies—and even individual executives—there’s a cautionary tale from half a century ago that seems right on point. And the president stretching the boundaries of his power was John F. Kennedy.
In the spring of 1962, President Kennedy was celebrating a key labor agreement between the United States Steel Company—the nation’s biggest—and the United Steelworkers’ Union. Steel was a major component of the nation’s manufacturing sector. So the modest 2.5 per cent wage increase promised to act as a brake on rising prices, and by extension a victory against a boost in inflation that was on the top of the White House’s concern.
A few days later, on April 10, US Steel chairman Roger Blough came into the Oval Office and handed Kennedy a statement announcing that the company was raising prices for steel3.5 per cent—a hike other steel companies would immediately follow.
This infuriated Kennedy: the steelmakers were just nudging up their worker’s salaries, but aggressively jacking up their profits. “You have made a terrible mistake,” Kennedy told him. “You have double-crossed me.” A few minutes later, his words were harsher. The White House let be known that JFK had said, “my father told me all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed him until now.” (That was not precisely what JFK’s father had said:In fact, had compared businessmen to most intimate part of the male anatomy.) A day later, at a news conference, he went public with an extraordinary condemnation of the industry, charging that “a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of private profit and power [showed] utter contempt for the interests of a hundred and eighty five million Americans.”
It wasn’t what Kennedy said, however, that demands our attention now: It was what his administration did next. Determined not to let the price increases damage the economy, and determined to prevent JFK being seen as a weak president, the Administration enlisted the full power of the federal government in the battle. (The full account of this story can be found in Richard Reeves’ superb book: “President Kennedy; Profile in Power.”)
Some of the tactics were bare-knuckles politics, but aboveboard: Defense Department contracts were shifted to companies that had not raised prices; Congressional allies of Kennedy promised antitrust investigations.
Others, however, did not simply walk up to the line between use and abuse of power, but jumped headlong over it.
For instance: in an effort to find out whether a steel executive at a shareholders’ meeting had publicly rejected the idea of a price increase, Attorney General Robert Kennedy dispatched FBI agents to quiz reporters about just what the executive had said. In an excess of zeal, some of the agents rousted reporters out of bed in the middle of the night. ...