"We're going to be very flexible," Trump said in responding to a reporter's question at the start of a Cabinet meeting.
Trump suggested, for example, that there could be a carve-out for Australia. "We have a very close relationship with Australia, we have a trade surplus with Australia," he said. "We'll be doing something with them. We'll be doing something with some other countries."
It was unclear whether the tariff orders, one for steel and another for aluminum, would provide details about how other nations could seek an exemption.
But the senior White House official said it would depend on security relations and whether a trading partner could offer an alternative way to satisfy the administration's concerns about U.S. steel and aluminum manufacturing capabilities.
Administration officials have argued that the domestic metal industrial base has been eroded to such a point that they present a significant threat to the future economic and national security of the country. Economists, however, have said that U.S. steelmakers, for example, produce more than what's needed for the Defense Department and its various military programs.
The last president who justified trade protection under national security was Ronald Reagan, when he shielded domestic machine tool makers from imports, prompting some countries to voluntarily restrain exports of the products for a period of time.
Canada is the largest source of foreign steel and aluminum, and Mexico is in the top five for both metals. But U.S. strategic allies such as Germany, Japan and South Korea are major suppliers of steel.
In signing a decree to impose the tariffs, Trump is making good on a campaign promise he made in the summer of 2016 in Pittsburgh, when he specifically said he would consider using the trade law that gives a president wide discretion to impose tariffs and other restrictions on the basis of national security.
While Trump has said the move would protect and grow domestic steel manufacturing jobs -- which number around 140,000 -- economists, business groups and congressional Republicans have warned that tariffs would lead to higher prices that would hurt companies using metals and ultimately consumers, resulting in a net loss of jobs.
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