WASHINGTON — Surrounded by workers from each industry, President Donald Trump officially authorized sweeping tariffs on steel and aluminum imports on Thursday in a White House signing ceremony.
The new orders take effect in 15 days time and impose 25% and 10% tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, respectively.
“A strong steel and aluminum industry are vital to our national security — absolutely vital. Steel is steel, you don’t have steel you don’t have a country,” Trump said Thursday, adding that foreign imports and dumping have led to “shuttered plants and mills” and the laying off of “millions of workers,” overstating the job losses in those industries, which his own adviser put at under 100,000.
“This is not merely an economic disaster, but it’s a security disaster we want to build our ships, we want to build our planes … with steel and aluminum from our country,” Trump said. “We’re finally taking action to correct this long overdue problem. Today I’m defending America’s national security by placing tariffs on foreign imports of steel and aluminum.”
But in a shift from recent plans, Trump will exempt Canada and Mexico from the tariffs and allow other US allies to petition for similar exemptions.
The NAFTA trading partners will be exempted while the three countries continue to renegotiate that free trade agreement and a senior administration official also cited the “security relationship” between the three countries as a rationale for their exemption.
Those exclusions are expected to quell some of the uproar, but could still set off a trade war between the US and several countries — a battle Trump insists the US can win even as some of his closest advisers worry the tariffs could hurt the growing American economy. But the prospect of additional country exclusions could also lead Trump to increase the tariff rate on other countries, a senior administration official warned.
Trump is imposing the tariffs using a rarely employed trade provision known as Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, claiming a national security rationale for protecting the domestic steel and aluminum industries. Anticipating attacks on that legal basis, a senior administration official insisted the rationale was “unassailable” and stressed that national security includes both national defense and economic security.
But the President also framed his decision along political lines on Thursday, just days before he heads to Pittsburgh — the heart of steel country — for a rally aimed at boosting a struggling Republican congressional campaign.
“I’m delivering on a promise I made during the campaign and a promise I’ve been making for a good part of my life,” Trump said as he prepared to sign the tariff proclamations.
It’s not clear what political effect the order would have in the Pennsylvania race. The Democratic candidate in the race supports Trump’s tariff proposal.
The move is expected to be questioned and countered, and could further put the US at odds with the international community.
Coming on the same day that 11 US allies — but not the US — sign a landmark Asia-Pacific trade agreement, the move on tariffs only underscores Trump’s embrace of the protectionist policies he believes helped him win the presidency.
In the US, Trump faced a stiff rebuke from trade groups representing retailers and manufacturers who are top consumers of steel and aluminum. He also faced continued criticism from within his own party, most notably House Speaker Paul Ryan who continued to lament Trump’s move — even as he applauded the exemptions for Canada and Mexico.
“I am pleased that the President has listened to those who share my concerns and included an exemption for some American allies, but it should go further. We will continue to urge the administration to narrow this policy so that it is focused only on those countries and practices that violate trade law,” Ryan said. “Our economy and our national security are strengthened by fostering free trade with our allies and promoting the rule of law.”
The country exclusions marked a shift in the administration’s thinking in recent days, after the President’s trade adviser Peter Navarro said Sunday he did not expect any countries to be exempted from the tariffs.
Pressed about the change, a senior administration official rejected the change as a “softening” and instead touted the flexibility built into the tariff proclamations Trump is issuing.
The tariff signing came after days of confusion over how the President would move forward. On Thursday morning, the situation was still shrouded in uncertainty. Multiple officials awoke with no clear picture of what Trump was prepared to sign during the afternoon event. Advisers have been scrambling since last week to finalize details on the tariffs after Trump announced he would impose them during a meeting with industry executives.
Multiple senior administration officials familiar with the planning said Trump was prepared to sign something on Thursday afternoon — though actual details of the document were still coming together through the morning. Advisers were prepared with a largely symbolic memo declaring Trump’s intent to take action on steel tariffs in case a more substantive order wasn’t final.
But by midday it appeared that formal language imposing new tariffs was ready to sign. Trump told reporters in the Cabinet Room that certain countries would be excluded, including Canada and Mexico, and kept open the possibility of excluding other nations like Australia, which are important national security allies.
“I’ll 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,” Trump said.
The confusion on Thursday in the hours leading up to the signing was an exclamation point to cap off a week of disarray within the White House sparked by a President eager to swiftly move forward with the tariffs — even as the policy was still being written.
11 countries sign TPP trade pact without the United States
Trump imposed the tariffs only a couple hours after 11 nations signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping trade agreement that was once thought to be dead after Trump withdrew the United States from talks.
Leaders from Mexico, Canada, Japan and other nations officially signed TPP on Thursday at a ceremony in Santiago, Chile.
TPP’s revival stands — and its very nature as a multi-country trade pact — defies Trump’s trade views. His administration has sought one-on-one trade pacts, initiated dozens of trade investigations and started to renegotiate existing deals.
In January 2017, Trump withdrew the United States from TPP discussions before it became law, arguing that it was an unfair deal for the country. At the time, some leaders, such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, declared TPP “meaningless.” But eventually, world leaders revived the agreement that encapsulates 14% of the global economy.
The TPP countries are Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, Canada and Mexico.