Trump faces last-ditch push by aides, allies to thwart tariffs

Split in Republican ranks comes ahead of election for House seat in steel country

WASHINGTON • United States President Donald Trump is facing a last-ditch effort from within his own administration and Republican lawmakers to head off steep tariffs on steel and aluminium that threaten to unleash a global trade war.

White House economic adviser Gary Cohn is summoning executives from US companies that depend on the metals to meet this week with Mr Trump to try to persuade him to blunt or halt the tariffs announced last week, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Republicans in Congress are mounting an unusual public campaign to thwart the tariffs, with House Speaker Paul Ryan's spokesman, Ms AshLee Strong, releasing a statement urging the President to halt the plan, a rare public break between the two GOP leaders.

Mr Trump on Monday stood by his call for a 25 per cent tariff on imported steel and 10 per cent on aluminium, saying "we're not backing down". Yet if he does not retreat, Mr Cohn may quit the administration and some in Congress could try to limit the President's authority to impose trade penalties.

The split in the Republican ranks on trade is coming to a head as the party struggles to hold a previously safe House seat in a special election in steel country. Mr Trump plans to visit the area on Saturday, a few days before the vote in south-western Pennsylvania, where recent polls show a Democrat slightly ahead in a district Mr Trump carried by 20 percentage points in 2016.

Tariff supporters are pressing Mr Trump to announce the measures during his visit to mobilise GOP voters, but Mr Cohn is pushing back with the meeting of executives to make the case that trade sanctions will cost American jobs.

The White House session with Mr Trump tomorrow will include representatives of breweries, beverage-can manufacturers and automakers, along with the oil industry, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a policy disagreement.


A Trump order to impose the tariffs would be a huge setback for Mr Cohn, who has vigorously opposed the move, citing concerns that it would hurt the economy. This decision is viewed inside the White House as a possible breaking point for Mr Cohn, a former senior executive at Goldman Sachs Group, and some insiders believe he will depart if Mr Trump does not take his advice on the issue.

Tariff supporters are pressing Mr Trump to announce the measures during his visit to mobilise GOP voters, but Mr Cohn is pushing back with the meeting of executives to make the case that trade sanctions will cost American jobs.

Conservative groups, including the Club for Growth, a pro-free market organisation, have also cautioned that tariffs would hurt the economy and Republican chances to hold on to both chambers of Congress in this year's mid-term elections.

Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle maker based in Wisconsin, Mr Ryan's home state, is facing threats of retaliation from Europe over the steel and aluminium tariffs. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the EU may target imports of the company's motorcycles as well as Kentucky bourbon and Levi Strauss jeans.

Harley-Davidson already is being hit by a deepening slump in American motorcycle demand, which has spurred job cuts and the closing of a plant in Kansas City, Missouri.

Republicans in Congress are walking a fine line - criticising the President while offering him a way to back off his position and preserve his ability to say he imposed tough new tariffs. Lawmakers do not have much time to change his mind. Mr Trump announced his plan last week, and an order could be signed within days.

Chairman Kevin Brady of Texas and other House Republicans are seeking to blunt the tariffs' impact by adding an "exclusion process" allowing American companies to petition for duty-free access for imports that are not available from US sources.

"The President has not made a final decision yet," Mr Brady said. "I'm continuing to reach out to the White House and the trade team."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2018, with the headline 'Trump faces last-ditch push by aides, allies to thwart tariffs'. Print Edition | Subscribe