Administration officials signaled Sunday that President Trump is determined to impose punishing tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, brushing aside an outcry from foreign allies, U.S. manufacturers, Republican lawmakers and other presidential advisors that he may ignite a damaging trade war.
Both Trump’s Commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, and White House trade advisor Peter Navarro, the apparent winners of an internal administration battle over the issue, said that they expect the president to follow up swiftly on his surprise announcement Thursday that he would invoke a little-used legal provision to singlehandedly impose duties of 25% on imported steel and 10% on aluminum.
“We expect probably by the end of the week it will be signed,” Navarro said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Navarro and Ross, making the rounds of news-talk shows, each suggested that Trump was unlikely to exempt allied countries from the tariffs, despite national-security concerns raised by some of his own advisors about the move. The president has instead invoked national security as a reason to press ahead with the tariffs.
“As soon as he starts exempting countries [from the tariffs], he has to raise the tariff on everybody else,” Navarro said on “Fox News Sunday.” Making trade allowances for good friends, he contended, was impractical: “As soon as he exempts one country, his phone starts ringing from the heads of state of other countries.”
Ross, on ABC’s “This Week,” said he believed Trump was “talking about a fairly broad brush” in applying the tariffs, adding: “I have not heard him describe particular exemptions yet.”
The president, who often doubles down in the face of criticism, has seemingly been unmoved by allies’ warnings that they would be forced to retaliate. More admonitions came in Sunday, as the British Embassy reported that British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke with Trump by phone and raised “deep concern” over the forthcoming tariff move.
The prime minister told Trump that “multilateral action was the only way to resolve the problem of global overcapacity in all parties’ interests,” according to the British statement. The White House did not immediately offer its own account of the conversation between the two leaders, whose relations have suffered periodic strains despite the deep and longstanding friendship between the United States and Britain.
In a series of tweets, Trump has seemingly relished the idea of trade clashes, even with close allies such as Canada, South Korea and members of the European Union. On Saturday, he suggested automobiles might be the next targeted trade sector.
“If the E.U. wants to increase their already massive tariffs and barriers on U.S. companies doing business there, we will simply apply a Tax on their Cars which freely pour into the U.S.,” he wrote on Twitter.
On Friday, a day after divulging the plan, the president tweeted that trade wars are “good and easy to win,” a position that economists across the spectrum dispute.
Markets have responded to Trump’s tariff plan with considerable trepidation. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Nasdaq both fell sharply after the unexpected announcement by the president.
Navarro, on “Face the Nation,” dismissed the notion that the plan’s abrupt rollout had been a slapdash, off-the-cuff affair. “This is a serious decision,” he said. “The president wanted to make a measured decision.”
Yet just ahead of the president’s remarks on Thursday, which he made in a meeting with steel industry chiefs, Trump’s chief economic advisor Gary Cohn and other aides opposed to the tariffs were assuring reporters and administration allies in business and Congress that Trump would not act.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) offered a blunt public message to Trump on Sunday: “You’re making a huge mistake.”
On CBS, Graham said China – the tariffs’ ostensible target, to punish Beijing for metals dumping -- would feel little economic impact because it accounts for only a very small share of steel and aluminum imported into the U.S. American allies including Canada, the European Union, Japan and South Korea are more significant exporters.
At the same time, Graham said, the Chinese leadership might take offense at the move, even as Trump is seeking Chinese aid in reining in North Korea.
Trump has insisted that tariffs will help boost not only the aluminum and steel industry, but also generate additional manufacturing jobs. That claim has been met with skepticism in the business community and by many analysts who predict a net job loss and damage to the overall U.S. and world economy as a result of the tariffs and other measures.
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said on ABC that a trade fight with Europe would be a “gift to Russia” because it would weaken important alliances.
“There are times when targeted sanctions are necessary, but you have to recognize that none takes place in a vacuum,” Murphy said.
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who generally sides with Democrats, made a similar point on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” saying, “You can’t make a change of this significance and assume that nothing else is going to happen as a result.”
“There is a concern,” King said, adding that the tariffs were announced “in this kind of shorthand way.”