Trump may seek stiff tariffs on steel, aluminium imports

US leader reportedly wants harshest options proposed, which may spark retaliation abroad

WASHINGTON • United States President Donald Trump has told confidants that he wants to impose the harshest tariffs on steel and aluminium imports recommended by the Commerce Department.

Mr Trump has said he wants to slap a global tariff of 24 per cent on steel imports, the most severe of three options presented to him in a report in January.

He is also considering as much as a 10 per cent duty on all aluminium entering the US, which would be more than 2.5 percentage points higher than the harshest of the recommendations by the Commerce Department. The process is ongoing, White House officials said on Friday.

Tariffs on such widely used commodities could spark retaliation from nations, including China and allies like Canada, while potentially raising prices on everything from cars to beer cans.

Some political analysts and economists have speculated that Mr Trump would take a targeted approach to the tariffs, and he is under pressure from members of his Republican party to refrain from measures that may antagonise other countries and disrupt supply chains.

"As with every decision he makes, the security of the American people and the American economy will be the President's primary concerns while he considers his potential options," White House spokesman Raj Shah said.

"President Trump is committed to achieving fair and reciprocal trade relationships that protect the American worker and grow our economy."

The Commerce Department concluded in a report last month that steel and aluminium imports imperil US national security. It recommended a range of options for the President, including imposing tariffs for certain nations and setting import quotas.

Mr Trump has until April 11 to make a decision on steel and April 19 for aluminium.

Mr Trump promised on the campaign trail in 2016 to revive US coal and steel industries, which rallied voters in places like south-west Pennsylvania.

A special election on March 13 to fill an open seat in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District is likely to be viewed as a bellwether for the mid-term elections in November.

Mr Trump warned Republicans not to be "complacent" during the mid-terms in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday. He is contemplating making an announcement on the tariffs at an event in Pennsylvania days before the special election, according to a person familiar with the matter.

There is resistance even within his own administration.

The Commerce Department overnight released a memo from the Defence Department warning about making rash trade decisions.

Meanwhile, senior US officials led by Mr Trump's trade envoy, Mr Robert Lighthizer, will discuss trade disputes this week with senior Chinese economic adviser Liu He when he visits Washington.

US officials say they do not expect a major breakthrough in the discussions.

China has expressed concerns over excessive protectionism in the US steel sector and urged restraint. It has also said it will oppose any "unfair and unreasonable" trade measures by countries such as the United States.

Exports from China to the US reached 1.18 million tonnes last year. China produces a total of 800 million tonnes of steel each year, equal to about half of global output.

Mr Liu, a Harvard-trained economist and trusted confidant of Chinese President Xi Jinping, has emerged as the front runner to be the next governor of China's central bank, according to sources.

He is the top adviser to Mr Xi on economic policy and is also expected to become vice-premier overseeing the Chinese economy.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 25, 2018, with the headline 'Trump may seek stiff tariffs on steel, aluminium imports'. Print Edition | Subscribe