Trump Imposes Tariffs, Openly Defying GOP

By Caitlin Huey-Burns
March 08, 2018

Republicans spent the past week urging President Trump to reconsider his push for tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, concerned such a policy would spark a trade war and undermine positive news about the economy and new tax cuts ahead of the midterm elections.

On Thursday, Trump went ahead with it anyway, openly defying many in his own party.

“Steel is steel,” he said when introducing the plan at the White House. “You don’t have steel, you don’t have a country.”

With a group of steelworkers holding hard hats behind him, Trump signed a presidential proclamation imposing a 25 percent tariff on steel and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imported to the United States. “The workers who poured their souls into building this great nation were betrayed,” he said before making the policy official. “But that betrayal is now over.”

The message was clear: a campaign promise made, a campaign promise kept.

Trump has been railing against "cheaters" and "unfair" trade practices for decades, and made that stance a pillar of his appeal to the working-class voters who helped him win the Oval Office. The pushback from fellow Republicans over the past several days proved to be less a deterrent and more a motivation for him to move against the establishment's "global" philosophy he has long decried.

The president’s decision prompted the departure this week of his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs executive who unsuccessfully tried to dissuade Trump from his protectionist impulses.

Trump did, however, acquiesce to one of the concerns expressed by GOP lawmakers and U.S. trading partners. The order includes a temporary exemption for Canada and Mexico for national security purposes, pending renegotiation of relevant NAFTA provisions. This comes after White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, a protectionist seen as something of a pariah by economists, argued over the weekend against exemptions. "As soon as he starts exempting countries, he has to raise the tariff on everybody else,” Navarro told “Fox News Sunday.”

Trump said earlier Thursday that the policy would be somewhat flexible and he didn’t rule out exemptions for additional countries. Administration officials said other countries seeking exemptions would be able to negotiate with the U.S. trade ambassador, suggesting a case-by-case approach. The policy is set to take effect March 23.

Still, the exemptions did not satisfy Republican critics, who have mostly been left in the dark as the president forged his own way on trade. GOP leaders said the official order, issued a week after Trump defied his own advisers by announcing the tariffs without first working out details, does not meet their hopes for a more tailored policy.

Senators are "concerned about the scope of the proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum and their impact on American citizens and businesses," said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose home state of Kentucky could be impacted if European allies retaliate with their own tariffs on bourbon and other products.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said he disagrees with the decision and fears “its unintended consequences. ... We will continue to urge the administration to narrow this policy so that it is focused only on those countries and practices that violate trade law."

While Republicans were well-aware of Trump's philosophy on trade when he was elected, he had demonstrated some openness to their point of view on economics. The tax bill he championed, for example, was high on a long-held GOP wish list. But in a conference call with reporters ahead of Thursday’s rollout, administration officials called the substance of the objections to the new policy "fake news."

Colorado Sen. Cory Garnder, who chairs the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he is “disappointed in this announcement and will be working with the businesses that may be potentially impacted by this decision, along with the administration, about how best to continue our joint efforts to create jobs and spur new growth.”

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake went further, saying he would put forward legislation to nullify the tariffs. “These so-called ‘flexible tariffs’ are a marriage of two lethal poisons to economic growth – protectionism and uncertainty,” he said. “Trade wars are not won, they are only lost. Congress cannot be complicit as the administration courts economic disaster."

It's unclear whether many other GOP lawmakers would join Flake, particularly since he is a well-established critic of the president who is retiring rather than seek re-election this year. In addition, Republicans are still hesitant to distance themselves from Trump, whom party voters still overwhelmingly support. But they are worried that the tariff policy, and the uncertainty Trump has brought to the process, will undermine their larger economic message and, more significantly, the benefits of their signature tax cuts.

The policy also scrambles traditional alliances and could be a boon to Democratic lawmakers from steel-heavy states and districts Republicans have targeted as try to maintain or expand their majorities in November. Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania have praised tariffs. On Thursday, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was quick to applaud the move.

"It’s past time to defend our interests, our security and our workers in the global economy and that is exactly what the president is proposing with these tariffs," Manchin said. "I believe our allies and our trading partners will understand that the president cannot stay silent any longer; he must give this country and West Virginia workers a fighting chance."

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurns.

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