Editorial: Trump wants to wield tariffs like a weapon. But who will he actually wound?

U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping.
(Thomas Peter / Associated Press)

President Trump has styled himself as something of a knight in shining armor on trade issues, riding in to rescue American workers and companies besieged by foreign competitors, unprotected by U.S. trade deals and abandoned by previous administrations.

Trump’s recent maneuvering to impose tariffs on imported cars and auto parts, however, belies that narrative. U.S. auto companies and workers look more like bystanders conscripted to fight a bloody war they don’t support — and that could leave them worse off than they are today.

For the record:

8:55 a.m. July 5, 2018An earlier version of this editorial misidentified the cable TV network where President Trump commented about car tariffs. It was the Fox Business Network, not the Fox Business Channel.

The president seemed to acknowledge as much this week, when he told a Fox Business Network interviewer that tariffs on cars were part of his negotiating strategy for rewriting the North American Free Trade Agreement. If the terms agreed to by Canada and Mexico aren’t “fine,” Trump said, “I’m going to tax their cars coming into America, and that’s the big one. You know, the cars are the big one. We can talk steel, we talk everything. The big thing is the cars.”


Several disputes have bogged down the NAFTA talks, including self-contradictory U.S. demands for lower Canadian and Mexican barriers on U.S. fruit and dairy products but higher barriers to Canadian and Mexican companies obtaining U.S. government contracts. One key issue is the Trump administration’s push to raise the percentage of a car’s major components that must be made within the region in order for it to qualify for duty-free treatment. It’s not clear whose interests that push serves. As U.S. manufacturers have pointed out, supply chains are global now. A tougher requirement that parts be made in the region could punish General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler at least as much as it would foreign automakers.

Lawmakers would be out of their minds to give yet more authority over tariffs to this White House.

The idea of a 20% tariff on imported cars surfaced on May 23, when Trump ordered the Commerce Department to investigate the national security implications of car, truck and parts imports. That’s a problem right there: Citing “national security” as a pretext to protect the U.S. production of cars even though a plentiful supply is available from our close allies makes a mockery of World Trade Organization rules.

In fact, it’s just the sort of rule-swallowing exception that China has made its stock in trade — see, for example, the Great Firewall that blocks foreign websites and informationtechnology products. It’s also the rationale the Trump administration used to impose tariffs on global steel and aluminum imports, even those from Canada. By misusing the “national security” exception, Trump is only encouraging other countries to do the same as a way to shield of their own goods and services.

This is Throwback Thursday leadership, borrowing techniques from the days when trade rules were loose at best and compliance was voluntary. Countries used to deploy steep new tariffs, quotas and other barriers to gain short-term advantages until their trading partners retaliated. A good example is the “chicken tax,” a tariff that European countries imposed in 1962, which led the United States to retaliate with its own levies. One of them was a 25% tax on imported light trucks that remains in effect today, something that Trump neglects to mention when complaining about 10% European tariffs on U.S. cars.

By the 1990s, U.S. policymakers came to see that it would be better to have enforceable global rules backed with a mechanism for binding dispute resolution. They helped sell that idea to the rest of the industrialized world, leading to the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1995.

Trump’s eagerness for negotiating leverage doesn’t stop with car tariffs. A draft bill, leaked to Axios, called the Fair and Reciprocal Tariff Act (insert your joke about the acronym here) would give the president authority to raise tariffs virtually at will as he seeks to rewrite existing trade deals and undo concessions made by his predecessors.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute from L.A. Times Opinion »

Congress first empowered the president to cut deals on tariffs more than 80 years ago — but with a goal of lowering trade barriers, not raising them. Lawmakers would be out of their minds to give yet more authority over tariffs to this White House.

Meanwhile, responding swiftly to the steel and aluminum levies Trump imposed last month, Canada, the European Union and China have not simply conceded to U.S. demands — instead, they’ve all retaliated with tariffs on billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. exports. The rest of the world may like selling to U.S. consumers, but they don’t need us as badly as they did in previous decades; the U.S. share of the global economy is about half what it was in 1960. To expect car tariffs to produce a different result is to ignore what’s happening right before our eyes.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinionand Facebook