I'm curious, since some sources seem to think that's what President Trump is threatening right now:

Referring to what he called “ridiculous and unfair” tariffs on U.S. imports, Trump said, “It’s going to stop — or we’ll stop trading with them. And that’s a very profitable answer, if we have to do it.”

“We’re the piggy bank that everybody is robbing, and that ends,” added Trump, who also repeated his exaggerations of U.S. trade deficits by tens or hundreds of billions of dollars. The president framed his trade attacks as a defense of U.S. national security, citing the weakening of the country’s “balance sheet” as the corresponding threat.

Does Trump have the presidential authority to effect a change like this?


4 Answers 4


Yes, although not sure if he can do so unilaterally or would require to work in concert with Congress.

As a practical example, US prohibits nearly all trade with North Korea (the latest of which was signed by Trump)

On 21 September 2017 President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13810 allowing the United States to cut from its financial system and/or freeze assets of any companies, businesses, organisations and individuals trading in goods, services or technology with North Korea. Also any aircraft or ship upon entering North Korea is banned for 180 days from entering the United States. The same restriction applies to ships which conducted ship to ship transfers with North Korean ships. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stated that "Foreign financial institutions are now on notice that going forward they can choose to do business with the United States or North Korea, but not both." A statement from the White House said “Foreign financial institutions must choose between doing business with the United States or facilitating trade with North Korea or its designated supporters.”[17][18] On 25 September 2017, the US Treasury barred the entry of North Korean nationals to the United States.[19]

  • 2
    I think who he needs to work with is the core issue. Pretty obviously if the whole government is on the same side they can do it. The North Korean case is less than enlightening for other countries because legislature passed wide authorizations for sanctions.
    – user9389
    Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 16:42
  • 1
    @notstoreboughtdirt indeed, I would assume that the question would best be answered by looking at whether current statutes authorize the president to stop trade between the US and an arbitrary country. If not, it would be interesting to know what restrictions the president could impose under current legislation.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 18:02
  • So a third party ships can trade with another ship going to US
    – user4951
    Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 13:28

Constitution of the United States, Article I, Section 8 (the "Commerce Clause", in pertinent part)

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

explicitly grants Congress the power to "regulate Commerce with foreign Nations".

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States

The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America

explicitly grants the President "executive Power", which in addition to the Office having the power granted by Article II, Section 2

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States

grants the Office "implied" powers (see U.S. Foreign Policy Powers: Congress and the President by Jonathan Masters, Council on Foreign Relations, March 2, 2017) to act directly in foreign policy. Congress can and previously has granted the President authority to act relevant to the foreign policy objectives of the United States. The Executive also has the power to issue an Executive Order.

Separation of powers (see The Federalist Papers : No. 47 The Particular Structure of the New Government and the Distribution of Power Among Its Different Parts From the New York Packet. Friday, February 1, 1788. Madison) is designed to be flexible; with the Supreme Court of the United States being the arbiter of the of powers granted to the two adjacent wings of the single trilateral body politic, if a controversy as to the exercise of those enumerated powers arises under the Constitution of the United States (see Political Questions in International Trade: Judicial Review of Section 301? by Erwin P. Eichmann and Gary N. Horlick, Michigan Journal of International Law, Volume 10, Issue 3, 1989).

The answer to the question depends on agreement between the Legislative Branch and Executive Branch as to what the foreign policy objective is; and which Branch of Government is asked the question, whether that be before or after the fact of Executive action.

The Supreme Court of the United States is the only Branch (Judicial) of Government which is explicitly granted power by the Constitution of the United States to resolve a case or controversy as to the rights of the parties arising under the Constitution and Laws of the United States, at Article III, Section 2

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;—to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States;— between a State and Citizens of another State,—between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

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    "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes..." It is very much worth noting that the meaning of "regulate" there is disputed. The modern interpretation suggests it means that the federal government can impose almost any control over interstate commerce that it wants, but there is a position that this was not the intended meaning.
    – jpmc26
    Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 5:18
  • 4
    @jpmc26 but given the modern interpretation of the interstate commerce clause, it's difficult to imagine a court overturning an act of congress that forbids all trade with a foreign nation. The question asks about what authority the president has, however, which means it's asking about the current state of the law. In other words, it's asking about what congress has already authorized the president to do, not about what it could authorize him to do.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 18:06
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    This sets forth general principles but does nothing to address statutory grants of authority which would be the relevant issue, or to apply these general principles to this particular set of facts.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 12, 2018 at 23:20
  • @ohwilleke Have you actually read the entire answer? The executive has taken foreign policy action in the past citing the powers of the Office to do so. The question is "Does the US President have the ability to" which only the Supreme Court can definitively rule on per the Constitution. The Constitution of the United States granted explicit power to the Supreme Court of the United States to declare the rights (powers) of the parties, if there is a live controversy and the body decides to answer the political question, which is the prerogative of the Court. No one else can answer the question. Commented Jun 12, 2018 at 23:38
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    @guest271314 Yes. I've read the entire answer and it is deeply flawed. It ignores two centuries of statutory law which grants the President all sorts of specific authority in specific circumstances and it doesn't meaningfully apply the cited authorities to the facts, or engage with examples and precedents from instances when embargoes have been imposed. This indicates an extremely shallow understanding.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 12, 2018 at 23:43

Strictly speaking it's called an embargo. It can be total or partial. Currently the US has several embargos (partial) throughout the world. This is the map:

US embargos as of 2018

There are several laws that enable the US president, administration, and/or congress to perform a full or partial embargo:

1) Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917

...is a United States federal law to restrict trade with countries hostile to the United States. The law gives the President the power to oversee or restrict any and all trade between the United States and its enemies in times of war.

2) International Emergency Economic Powers Act

...is a United States federal law authorizing the President to regulate commerce after declaring a national emergency in response to any unusual and extraordinary threat to the United States which has a foreign source.

You might also take as example the Cuban Democracy Act:

The Cuban Democracy Act was a bill presented by U.S. Congressman Robert Torricelli and passed in 1992 which prohibited foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba, travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, and family remittances to Cuba.

I would argue, however, that it is very unlikely that any reasonable (and probably even an unreasonable) administration or congress would make use of these powers against (supposedly) allies other than in the most dire circumstances. Mostly because it would be a kind of "scorched earth >solution!°_°<" damaging other as much as yourself.

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    The bottom line is that the President has authority under certain statutes under certain statutory conditions to limit trade, but not a blanket authority to ban all trade with a particular nation on a whim. His power is much more constrained than he implies.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 12, 2018 at 23:22

The President can only shut down trade with a particular nation with statutory authorization from Congress in a law or treaty.

For the most part, all laws allowing all trade to cease with a country, which is to say embargoes, are specifically authorized as to specific countries by statutes that identify those countries. So, no, the President can't do that under the current state of the law.

The President does have a statutory authority to enact tariffs on particular kinds of goods chosen by U.S. government officials for particular reasons as retaliation for certain unfair trade practices which he must certify as meeting statutory conditions, but those retaliatory tariff statutes do not authorize a total embargo of a nation that is not specifically authorized by Congress.

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