President Donald Trump intends to intensify enforcement of food safety regulations as a cudgel in international trade negotiations, according to leaked recordings of a what appears to be a phone conversation between Trump and Wilbur Ross, his nominee for Commerce Secretary. During the conversation, which was recorded in December, the then-president-elect also advocated a 10 percent across-the-board tariff on all foreign imports, an issue on which his administration has adopted numerous different positions and which Speaker Paul Ryan has flatly rejected.
The proposals came during an apparent phone conversation that was captured on video and provided to Gizmodo via SecureDrop, a portal permitting whistleblowers and sources to reach us while remaining anonymous.
The videos don’t show Trump or Ross, and appear to have been recorded in an office where Trump’s voice could be heard on speaker phone and Ross’ voice was audible from a neighboring room. Metadata associated with the files indicates that they were recorded at the same location as the midtown Manhattan offices of Ross’ private equity firm at roughly 10:25 on the morning of December 13, 2016—about a half-hour after Kanye West’s famous visit to Trump Tower. (Later that afternoon, according to the president-elect pool reports, Ross visited Trump for an in-person meeting.) Neither the White House nor Ross responded to a request for comment from Gizmodo.
At one point in the conversation, Trump and Ross discuss the possibility of using safety regulations on food imports as a mechanism to pressure foreign companies or governments.
TRUMP: If you look at Japan, what they do with food—they say it’s not clean enough, and you have to send it back, and by the time it comes back it’s all gone.
ROSS: Exactly. And we oughta let them know we’re gonna start playing the same game.
TRUMP: Well I think you let them know that we’re going to do that. Without saying that, you say, “We’re gonna inspect you so closely,” bomp bomp.
ROSS: Yeah. That’s the thing—not to say that it’s punitive, but in the interest of American safety.
While it is true that food-borne illness from imports is on the rise, it still makes up very little of food poisoning in the United States—only about 5 percent of food-borne illnesses in 2014, according to a recent government study, up from about 1 percent in the late ‘90s—and the president has shown little actual interest in protecting food safety for safety’s sake. Before the election, Trump, who consumes fast food prodigiously, proposed a plan that attacked the “FDA Food Police” for “inspection overkill” and promised to ease food-safety regulations.
The state of Georgia offers an instructive example on the consequences of such deregulation: In 2006, Governor Sonny Perdue slashed the state’s food safety budget by 29 percent. Two years later, at least 714 people across 46 states took ill after salmonella tainted peanut paste produced at a factory in Blakely, Georgia. Nine people died, and the CEO of the company that owned the factory was sentenced to 28 years in prison.
Perdue is now Trump’s nominee to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (His spokesperson has suggested that he didn’t bear direct responsibility for the safety cuts.)
At another point in the recordings, Ross and the president-elect discuss the impact of a 10 percent, universal tariff—the centerpiece of any anti-free trade economic agenda. Here is a transcript of that exchange:
TRUMP: [Inaudible] free trade bullshit—so they are the most protected. That’s why they’re doing well!
ROSS: Of course. They have big barriers—
TRUMP: Let me ask you, would you ever [inaudible] a 10 percent—here’s something I’ve always said: Ten percent tariff or tax to do business in the United States. For everybody. China. Everybody. Straight across the board, 10 percent. Now, it’s not enough for anybody to say, “Oh, I’m never gonna go there.” Okay? But—and it’s not enough to cause inflation or all the bullshit. You know what it does to the deficit? You go from losing money to breaking even in, in one year. Immediately. When you do it.
TRUMP: And I don’t think anybody’s gonna stop trading because of that. What do you think of that?
Trump has long supported the aggressive implementation of tariffs: In 2011, he proposed a 20 percent tax on “any foreign country shipping goods into the United States,” and has proposed tariffs as high as 35 percent and 45 percent on Mexico and China, respectively. Around the time his conversation with Ross was recorded, officials with the incoming administration floated the idea of imposing a flat tariff between five and 10 percent, although Trump himself does not appear to have commented (publicly) on those proposals.
For his part, Ross appears more ambivalent about tariffs than his boss. “I think that it’s a complicated issue whether you should have one flat tariff on everything or whether it should be more tailored toward the individual situations,” he told the Senate Commerce Committee during his confirmation hearing last month. “I think tariffs play a role both as a negotiating tool and, if necessary, to punish offenders who don’t play by the rules.”
Critics of such a tariff say that it risks sparking a trade war, and Republican leadership in Congress strenuously oppose it: “We’re not going to be raising tariffs,” Paul Ryan said last month. The House speaker instead supports a border adjustment tax (which is a tax on American companies that import foreign goods) as a means of alleviating the trade deficit.
Despite his longstanding support for tariffs, the president has recently seemed more suggestible. On Thursday, he spoke positively of a border adjustment tax in an interview with Reuters. “I certainly support a form of tax on the border,” he said. “What is going to happen is companies are going to come back here, they’re going to build their factories and they’re going to create a lot of jobs and there’s no tax.”
Then again, on Friday morning, according to Axios, the president’s chief economic advisor, Gary Cohn, told a group of CEOs that Trump would not support the House GOP’s version of a border adjustment tax (which the White House later denied).
The videos, while not overly sensitive, appear to document the ostensibly private consultations of the president-elect and a future cabinet secretary—the latest entry in a growing catalog of private presidential moments that became public through the failure of Trump or his circle to take basic precautions against eavesdropping. (Not that we are complaining!) In his first few weeks as president, Trump discussed a North Korean missile test in the restaurant at Mar-a-Lago, his staff illuminating briefing materials with the flashlights on their phones as diners enjoyed the impromptu display of radical transparency; press photographs from the Oval Office showed a “lockbag” sitting on Trump’s desk with the key left in the lock; and White House social media director Dan Scavino posted a 27-second video of Trump and his crew to Twitter—including the military officer responsible for carrying the nuclear codes.
The Senate will likely vote on the conflict-of-interest-ridden Ross tonight. If you have access to recordings of conversations between Trump or other White House officials and Cabinet members, you can get them to us (securely) here.
This story was produced by Gizmodo Media Group’s Special Projects Desk.