Industries growing anxious as Trump stalls on trade

US President's team struggling with red tape even as many businesses wait for campaign promises to be fulfilled

WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump promised Americans that they would be exhausted from "winning" on trade under his presidency.

But nearly seven months after he took office, the industries he vowed to protect have become tired of something else: waiting.

After beginning his presidency with a bang by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact in January, Mr Trump has accomplished little else of significance when it comes to reorienting deals with other countries.

Instead, his administration has been struggling to work through the complicated rules that dictate international commerce.

All the while, they are learning that bold campaign promises are hard to keep when many voices advocate different plans.

For many businesses that had raised their hopes, frustration is mounting by the day. America's steelworkers are on edge as they wait for Mr Trump to fulfil his promise to place tariffs on steel imports.

Home builders are desperate for the President to cut a deal with Canada to end a dispute over its softwood lumber exports. Builders are looking to Europe and Russia for lumber because Canada has become so expensive, said National Association of Home Builders chief executive Gerald Howard.

And cattle ranchers are longing for a bilateral pact with Japan to ease the flow of beef exports.

"It's frustrating because of the impact it's having on the industry," Mr Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers International union, said of the delayed result of a highly anticipated steel investigation.

The Commerce Department was poised to deliver a report to Mr Trump by the end of June with recommendations for steel tariffs, on the ground that cheap imports pose a national security threat.

But the process became bogged down when industries that buy steel objected and other countries threatened retaliation. Mr Trump said recently that dealing with steel was no longer a top priority.

Mr Gerard said foreign competitors had been flooding the US market with steel products in anticipation of the tariffs. Some of this is happening in parts of the country that voted for Mr Trump.

One accomplishment that Mr Trump has notched on trade has been an agreement with China that opened its market to US beef exports.

For the beef industry, however, the benefits of that deal pale in comparison with the cost of abandoning the TPP, which would have provided access to the enormous Japanese market.

Despite the delays, the pace of action on trade is expected to pick up soon. In the coming days, the US Trade Representative is expected to unveil a trade case accusing China of extensive violations of intellectual property.

Next Wednesday, the United States, Mexico and Canada are to begin talks on renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), which Mr Trump threatened this year to terminate before reversing course.

"Trump's view on trade is to use leverage to require countries to do things we want them to do and use trade as a bargaining chip," said Mr Stephen Moore, the Heritage Foundation economist who advised Mr Trump's campaign.

But Mr Trump's trade strategy comes with its own set of risks.

Mr Kent Bacus, director of international trade for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, for instance, said that Nafta, while much derided by Mr Trump, had been a boon for beef exports.

"This isn't about political messaging for us," Mr Bacus said. "This is about lost profits, lost jobs and lost opportunity."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2017, with the headline 'Industries growing anxious as Trump stalls on trade'. Print Edition | Subscribe