WASHINGTON – The White House appears unbowed by broad domestic and international criticism of planned import tariffs on steel and aluminum, saying Sunday that there are no plans to exempt countries from the stiff duties.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said: “At this point in time there’s no country exclusions.”
Trump’s announcement Thursday that he would impose tariffs of 25 percent and 10 percent, respectively, on imported steel and aluminum, roiled markets, rankled allies and raised prospects for a trade war. While his rhetoric has been focused on China, the duties will also cover significant imports from Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Japan and the European Union.
The Pentagon had recommended that Trump only pursue targeted tariffs, so as not to upset American partners abroad. But Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Sunday that was not the direction the president would take.
“He’s talking about a fairly broad brush,” Ross said on ABC’s “This Week.” He rejected threats of retaliation from American allies as “pretty trivial.”
Few issues could blur the lines of partisanship in Trump-era Washington. Trade is one of them.
Labor unions and liberal Democrats are in the unusual position of applauding Trump’s approach, while Republicans and an array of business groups are warning of dire economic and political consequences if he goes ahead with the tariffs.
Trade politics often cut along regional, rather than ideological, lines, as politicians reflect the interests of their hometown industries and workers. But rarely does a debate open so wide a rift between a president and his party – leaving him almost exclusively with support from his ideological opposites.
“Good, finally,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat and progressive, as he cheered Trump’s move. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, a Democrat who has called for Trump to resign, agreed.
“I urge the administration to follow through and to take aggressive measures to ensure our workers can compete on a level playing field,” Casey tweeted.
This moment of unusual alliance was long expected. As a candidate, Trump made his populist and protectionist positions on trade quite clear, at times hitting the same themes as one of the Democratic presidential candidates, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“This wave of globalization has wiped out totally, totally our middle class,” Trump told voters in the hard-hit steel town of Monessen, Pennsylvania, during one of his campaign stops. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Trump’s criticism of trade agreements and China’s trade policies found support with white working-class Americans whose wages had stagnated over the years. Victories in big steel-producing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana demonstrated that his tough trade talk had a receptive audience.
In a March 13 House election in Pennsylvania, Republican Rick Saccone has voiced support for Trump’s approach, while Democrat Conor Lamb’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Rick supports free trade as long as it’s fair. If other countries aren’t playing by the rules and tariffs are needed to protect steel and aluminum jobs in southwestern Pennsylvania, Rick would support those measures,” Saccone’s campaign said.
But Trump’s GOP allies on Capitol Hill have little use for the tariff approach. They argue that other industries that rely on steel and aluminum products will suffer. The cost of new appliances, cars and buildings will rise if the president follows through, they warn, and other nations could retaliate. The end result could erode the president’s base of support with rural America and even the blue-collar workers the president says he trying to help.
“There is always retaliation, and typically a lot of these countries single out agriculture when they do that. So, we’re very concerned,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.
Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., asked the administration to reconsider its stance. He said American companies could move their operations abroad and not face retaliatory tariffs.
“This scenario would lead to the exact opposite outcome of the administration’s stated objective, which is to protect American jobs,” Walker said.
The Business Roundtable’s Josh Bolten, a chief of staff for President George W. Bush, called on Trump to have “the courage” to step back from his campaign rhetoric on trade.
“Sometimes a president needs to, you need to stick to your principles but you also need to recognize in cases where stuff you said in the campaign isn’t right and ought to be drawn back,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “The president needs to have the courage to do that.”
Tim Phillips, president of the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, noted that Trump narrowly won in Iowa and Wisconsin, two heavily rural states that could suffer if countries impose retaliatory tariffs on American agricultural goods.
“It hurts the administration politically because trade wars, protectionism, they lead to higher prices for individual Americans,” Phillips said. “It’s basically a tax increase.”
The president wasn’t backing down, at least on Twitter, where he posted this message: “Trade wars are good, and easy to win.”
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