Hoping to blunt a move Republicans fear could spark a global trade war and backfire politically, party leaders in the House and Senate implored President Trump on Tuesday to narrow or repudiate his planned tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
The president, at an afternoon news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, appeared unmoved, defending his intent to level tariffs and taking particular aim at the European Union, a group composed largely of diplomatic allies.
”The United States has been taken advantage of by other countries, both friendly and not so friendly, for many, many decades, and we have a trade deficit of $800 billion a year,” Trump said. “And that’s not going to happen with me.… I don’t blame the countries. I blame our leadership for allowing it to happen.”
Trump’s words came within hours of criticism from the Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, and appeared aimed at them.
The rare public disagreement after a year in which they have been largely deferential to Trump came amid widespread Republican concern that Trump’s desired tariffs — 25% on foreign steel and 10% on foreign aluminum — would prompt retaliation that could raise consumer prices, slow the economy and deprive GOP candidates of their main argument in November.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has repeatedly talked to the president since the surprise declaration last week, said that fellow Republican senators were worried “about interfering with what appears to be an economy taking off.”
“We are urging caution that this [not] develop into something much more dramatic that could send the economy in the wrong direction,” McConnell told reporters after a Senate lunch Tuesday.
His remarks followed those of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who said his members shared those concerns and had repeatedly made their fears known to the White House.
“The smarter way to go is to make it more surgical and more targeted,” Ryan said of the tariffs, which have yet to be formally announced.
Ryan said that in multiple conversations, congressional Republicans have strongly urged Trump to go after “true abusers” in a way that avoided “unintended consequences and collateral damage.”
For years, Trump has complained that China has dumped low-priced steel on U.S. markets, undercutting domestic manufacturers. But administration officials made clear in recent days that his proposed tariffs could hit every nation, including neighboring Canada, a high-ranking steel exporter.
Legislative leaders were hopeful Tuesday that the White House was, at the very least, wobbling on the breadth of its tariff order. Trump made no promises either way in his remarks Tuesday.
But news Tuesday evening that Trump chief economic advisor Gary Cohn planned to resign was seen as a sign that tariffs were coming. Cohn has fought hard against imposing them.
Trump reiterated his Monday statement that he might consider exempting Canada and Mexico from tariffs if the three countries reach a new North American Free Trade Agreement that he finds acceptable.
But he turned his focus toward European nations.
”The European Union has been particularly tough on the United States. They make it almost impossible for us to do business with them, and yet, they send their cars and everything else back into the United States,” he said. “And they can do whatever they’d like, but if they do that, then we put a big tax of 25% on their cars, and believe me, they won’t be doing it very long.”
Even before Trump’s comments, tensions had grown between the United States and Canada. The president spoke Monday with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a conversation in which Trump “emphasized his commitment to a NAFTA agreement that was fair to all three countries,” according to the White House.
In Canada, the prime minister’s office released a more forceful statement, saying Trudeau had “registered his serious concern” about the proposed steel and aluminum tariffs. They “would not be helpful to reaching a deal on NAFTA,” the statement said.
Trudeau’s comments were in keeping with fears by tariff opponents that Trump’s action might prompt other nations to retaliate — raising prices for Americans. That was also the fear of congressional Republicans, who already face daunting prospects in November’s election.
The economy is a major argument for Republican incumbents’ reelection in November. Since Trump’s tariff announcement, concerns have risen that the impact of tariffs would wipe out other recent economic gains, which Republicans plan to link to the GOP tax reform plan.
Ryan on Tuesday referred elliptically to those fears.
“We think the economy is doing very well, and we want to make sure that every step we take helps the economy,” he said. “We want to be sure that abuses are held to account, especially China.”
But, he added, “we want to be sure that every step we take forward does not have unintended consequences.”
Asked whether he shared Ryan’s concerns, McConnell responded with mild frustration.
“I think we need to wait and see what the White House finally decides to do on this,” he said.
Several Republicans have gone public with their criticism of the president’s tariff proposal. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) called the idea “kooky.”
On the Senate floor Monday night, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) cited President George W. Bush’s 2002 effort to impose similar tariffs as an example Trump should take to heart. The Bush effort was halted after it caused the same consequences Ryan and McConnell warned about on Tuesday,
“It’s a good goal by a well-intentioned president, but I’m afraid that it will backfire just like it did for President Bush,” Alexander said. “Tariffs are big taxes; they are big taxes that raise consumer prices.”
Alexander said he was particularly alarmed then by the impact on manufacturers in Tennessee, including those in the auto industry. He also reminded Trump that after the tariff announcement, European appliance manufacturer Electrolux put on hold a $250-million expansion it had planned in Springfield, Tenn. The company, which uses U.S. steel, said tariffs such as those backed by Trump would set off a domino effect leading to higher costs.
In tweets and brief comments in recent days, Trump has dismissed the notion of a global trade war. But on Tuesday, he went back to an earlier suggestion that a trade war would not be a bad thing.
“You know, when we’re behind ... every single country, trade wars aren’t so bad,” he said. “When we’re down by $30 billion, $40 billion, $60 billion, $100 billion, the trade war hurts them. Doesn’t hurt us. So we’ll see what happens.”
If the United States chooses to go to battle economically, he said, “it’ll be a loving, loving way.”
“They’ll like us better,” he said, “and they will respect us much more.”
His guest Tuesday had a contrary idea. “Swedish prosperity is built on cooperation, competitiveness and free trade,” Lofven said. “And I am convinced that increased tariffs will hurt us all in the long run.”
3 p.m.: This article was updated with Trump’s comments.
12:30 p.m.: This article was updated with McConnell’s comments.
This article was originally published at 8:55 a.m.