Unswayed by Republican warnings of a trade war, President Donald Trump ordered steep new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports to the U.S., vowing to fight back against an “assault on our country” by foreign competitors.
The president said Thursday he would exempt Canada and Mexico while negotiating for changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The new tariffs will take effect in 15 days, with Canada and Mexico indefinitely exempted “to see if we can make the deal,” Trump said. NAFTA talks are expected to resume early next month.
“The American aluminum and steel industry has been ravaged by aggressive foreign trade practices. It’s really an assault on our country. It’s been an assault,” Trump said at the White House. He was joined by steel and aluminum workers holding white hard hats.
American steel and aluminum workers have long been betrayed, but “that betrayal is now over,” Trump said. The former real-estate developer said politicians had for years lamented the decline in the industries, but nobody was willing to take action.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Cleveland, who has been calling on the president to take action on steel, applauded the move.
“For far too long, Chinese cheating has shuttered steel plants across our state and put Ohioans out of work,” Brown said in a statement. “Today’s action finally sends a clear message to our trading partners that we aren’t going to allow them to cheat Americans out of their jobs and infect global markets.”
As he has indicated previously, Trump said he would levy tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum. But he said during a cabinet meeting earlier in the day the penalties would “have a right to go up or down depending on the country, and I’ll have a right to drop out countries or add countries. I just want fairness.”
Jose Arroyo, local business representative for the United Steelworkers, said the biggest concern for the union are the countries that dump steel into the U.S. market including China, Brazil and Korea.
“We do not want to hurt our partners when they are actually fair players,” Arroyo said.
Arroyo said there needs to be some exclusions for companies that use product that isn’t produced in the U.S.
“[But] for a lot of the [products] that we actually do make that are being dumped, that’s where we need to focus our attention,” Arroyo said.
Commercial Metal Forming, a tank head producer on Logan Avenue in Youngstown, buys 99 percent of its steel domestically, Bob Messaros, president and chief executive officer said.
While Messaros doesn’t foresee any problems for Commercial from the tariffs, he is concerned about the impact on other steel users and the consumer. Commercial, he said, has an “intimate” relationship with its steel supply chain so it will not have to deal with some of the high prices that will pop up because of the tariff.
“The bottom line is I have lived through this going back to the 1970s, and every time this happens, the U.S. mills jack their prices up to increase their profits,” he said. “This was not needed.”
Business leaders have continued to sound the alarm about the potential economic fallout from tariffs, with the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce raising the specter of a global trade war.
That scenario, Tom Donohue said, would endanger the economic momentum from the GOP tax cuts and Trump’s rollback of regulations.
“We urge the administration to take this risk seriously,” Donohue said.
The president suggested in the meeting with his Cabinet that Australia and “other countries” might also be spared, a shift that could soften the international blow amid threats of retaliation by trading partners.
“We’re going to be very fair, we’re going to be very flexible, but we’re going to protect the American worker as I said I would do in my campaign,” Trump said.
People briefed on the plans ahead of the announcement said all countries affected by the tariffs would be invited to negotiate with the administration to be exempted from the tariffs if they can address the threat their exports pose to U.S. manufacturers.
The exemptions for Canada and Mexico could be ended if talks to renegotiate NAFTA stall.
The process of announcing the penalties has been the subject of an intense debate and chaotic exchanges within the White House, pitting hard-liners against free-trade advocates such as outgoing economic adviser Gary Cohn.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, appearing at a session with Home Depot employees in Atlanta, said ahead of Trump’s announcement, “I’m just not a fan of broad-based, across-the-board tariffs.” He pointed to the store’s many products that rely on steel and aluminum.
More than 100 House Republicans wrote Trump on Wednesday, asking him to reconsider “the idea of broad tariffs to avoid unintended negative consequences” to the U.S. economy and workers.
The president has said the tariffs are needed to reinforce lagging American steel and aluminum industries and protect national security.
Contributor: Kalea Hall, staff writer