Trump plans to announce steel tariffs, but may allow exemptions for U.S allies after all

Don Lee, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in Business News

WASHINGTON -- President Trump is expected as early as Thursday to sign off on his controversial plan to slap stiff tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, but in a surprise reversal the White House opened the door to exemptions for products from Canada, Mexico and other U.S. allies.

Carve-outs for certain countries from Trump's proposed double-digit duties would mark a retreat from the president's insistence earlier that the levy would be across the board.

And that could mollify leading U.S. trading partners and allies that have roundly criticized the tariffs and threatened to respond with retaliatory measures.

Excluding allies from the tariffs also could help the Trump better focus on his intended target, China, especially at a time when the U.S. and other Western powers have begun to take a more skeptical view of Beijing in light of the Chinese leadership's increasingly assertive and expansionist activities.

Though China's overproduction of steel is seen as the primary cause of a global glut, the United States gets a relatively small amount of imported metals from China. Instead, most U.S. steel and aluminum imports come from Canada and other allies.

So sharp opposition and threats of retaliation have come not from Beijing, but from Washington's staunchest allies. European Union leaders Wednesday endorsed a plan to target for counter-tariffs items such as American steel, chewing tobacco and orange juice.

"Right now what this is doing is getting all of Europe's attention and energy, (and a) focus on pushing back against the United States, not pushing on China," said Jennifer Hillman, a Georgetown University law professor and former member of the World Trade Organization's appellate body.

Trump's announcement last week that he would apply blanket tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum shocked trading partners and led to the resignation of the White House National Economic Council director, Gary Cohn.

As Trump's top economic advisor, Cohn had been a moderating influence on Trump's protectionist impulses, but the president went ahead with the tariff proclamations despite Cohn's advice and that of congressional Republicans and business leaders that such action could hurt economic growth and lead to a trade war.

On Wednesday, 107 House Republicans sent Trump a letter urging him "to reconsider the idea of broad tariffs to avoid unintended negative consequences to the U.S. economy and its workers."


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