President Trump’s fellow Republicans were aghast Thursday in the wake of his decision to levy harsh tariffs against steel and aluminum imports.
The move represented the president’s most dramatic break to date with his party’s traditional free-trade orthodoxy, and arrived with no advance warning to GOP leaders on Capitol Hill. Key lawmakers learned the news from reporters as they arrived and left a weekly GOP senators lunch in the Capitol.
“So they’ve announced it?” asked Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who chairs the Agriculture Committee. After being informed of the scope of the new tariffs — 25 percent for foreign-made steel and 10 percent for aluminum — Roberts shook his head and pronounced the move “terribly counterproductive.”
“Every time you do this you get a retaliation, and agriculture’s the number one target,” Roberts said.
Last month, shortly after Trump announced tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines, Chinese officials reacted by investigating U.S. exports of sorghum, a cereal grain grown in Kansas and elsewhere. The Chinese probe is aimed at determining whether the U.S. is engaging in “dumping,” or exporting the product at an unnaturally low price.
Roberts and others fear that the steel and aluminum tariffs, which are much farther-reaching than the earlier action, could prompt similar retaliation. Many states also import as much steel or more than they export, and senators fear the result of the tariffs could actually be rising steel prices.
“What bothers me is if his proposal is so broad and counterproductive that it really harms other manufacturing interests,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
“I have huge concern. We’ve seen the lessons,” Johnson said, referring to steel tariffs levied by President George W. Bush, which the World Trade Organization ultimately ruled illegal — but not before some manufacturers said they had pushed up prices and hurt the industry. “Steel prices increased dramatically, and we lost an awful lot of jobs,” Johnson said.
GOP senators have made that argument and many more to Trump in numerous settings, from the Oval Office to a recent televised meeting at the White House, in an attempt to talk him down from the protectionist trade stances he campaigned on. The Republican Party traditionally supports free-trade deals, and lawmakers have been urging Trump to reconsider declarations that he would withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he’s decried as a terrible deal.
There are also divisions on the issue within the White House, and there has been some evidence the GOP pleas have moved Trump. The Trump administration is engaged in NAFTA renegotiation talks, as opposed to outright withdrawing from the pact with Canada and Mexico. And Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin recently opened the door to rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes many Asian Rim nations.
But on the tariffs, Trump’s decision went against the views of a vast majority of GOP lawmakers. A spokesman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said that “the speaker is hoping the president will consider the unintended consequences of this idea and look at other approaches before moving forward.”
And even though lawmakers have come to expect the unexpected from the Trump administration, lawmakers were disappointed that they hadn’t gotten a heads-up in advance, which would have given them the opportunity to make their case one more time against the tariffs.
“Information is helpful in that it’s always one more opportunity to express concern about a direction that they appear to be going,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). “So I’d have been delighted to have been briefed on the decision.”