President Trump on Tuesday told lawmakers at the White House that he is considering new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, warning that the domestic industries are being “decimated” by unfair trade.
“They are dumping and destroying our industries,” Trump said. “We can’t let that happen.”
Trump pushed back against several lawmakers who warned him the tariffs could cost U.S. jobs and hurt the broader economy.
“You may have a higher price, but you have jobs,” Trump said during the nearly hourlong meeting, which included lawmakers from both parties.
The White House meeting was scheduled as closed to the press, but Trump let reporters remain in the room. That allowed for an unusual public airing of the tensions between Republican lawmakers and the president on trade.
Republicans have been particularly outspoken on trade issues, repeatedly calling on the president to remain in the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Lawmakers stayed on offense, warning the president that previous tariff actions have backfired and done more harm than good to jobs and U.S. manufacturing.
But Trump said he remains unconvinced that punishing countries for unfair trade practices would produce dire consequences.
He reiterated his long-held position that the United States has been losing at trade because “we’re like the stupid people” when it comes to crafting deals.
Republican lawmakers in the room took turns debating the president, often questioning his claims or rebutting his criticism of other countries.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was first out the gate, warning Trump about the possible negative effects of high tariffs on imports.
“We need to be careful here that we don’t start a reciprocal battle on tariffs,” Blunt said.
“We make aluminum and we make steel in Missouri, but we buy a lot of aluminum and we buy a lot of steel as well," he said.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said tariffs could lead to job losses.
But the president argued that rebuilding the steel and aluminum industries “will create a lot of jobs.”
He told Lee that instead of raising prices under higher tariffs, foreign competitors will simply “eat a lot of the tax."
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) urged the president to “go very, very cautiously here,” highlighting the importance of steel to the defense industry.
Toomey, among other lawmakers, recommended that the president go after those countries that are engaging in unfair trade practices.
“That’s all countries,” Trump replied.
But Toomey responded that "the 232 is a different matter, and invoking national security, when I think it's really hard to make that case, invites retaliation that will be problematic for us."
Trump at one point singled out Canada, saying the country has “treated us very unfairly on timber and lumber … and not easy on Wisconsin farmers.”
That drew a response from Republican Sen. Ron Johnson from Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin operates a trade surplus with both Canada and Mexico,” he said. “Trade works very well for Wisconsin.”
Much of the meeting centered on what actions Trump might take on steel and aluminum imports, following reports sent to the White House by the Commerce Department last month.
Trump has about 60 days left to make a decision whether to assess penalties under Section 232 of a 1962 trade law that gives the president the power to apply higher tariffs and quotas on imported steel and aluminum for national security reasons.
The United States already has more than 150 countervailing and antidumping duties on steel imports, some as high as 266 percent.
Trump reiterated that he is considering imposing a mix of tariffs and quotas on steel and aluminum.
“I want to keep prices down, but I also want to make sure that we have a steel industry and an aluminum industry, and we do need that for national defense,” the president said.
But the warnings continued from lawmakers, many from steel- and aluminum-producing states. They urged Trump to look at the bigger picture and take into account the historic context of these sorts of trade punishments.
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) urged the president to “look carefully at what President George W. Bush did” when he imposed tariffs.
“The effect was it raised the price of almost all steel in the United States,” he said.
Alexander said auto parts companies and manufacturers lost jobs.
Trump dismissed the concern, saying instead that Bush had botched the efforts.
“It didn’t work for Bush, but it worked for others,” Trump said.
Alexander responded: “It cost jobs and raised prices.”
In 2002, President George W. Bush put emergency steel tariffs into place. But he lifted the tariffs a little more than a year later, after U.S. allies threatened to retaliate.
Many congressional Democrats, meanwhile, are supportive of Trump taking action on steel imports.
The four Democrats who attended Tuesday’s meeting — Sens. Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Gary Peters (Mich.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) — delivered a variety of messages to Trump on trade.
Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, went so far as to urge Trump to require that his infrastructure program only use American-made steel.
Trump nodded his head in agreement.
Others urged quicker action on tariffs.
"The time for talk about standing up for our steelworkers has passed," Casey said.
"It’s time for action. Our steelworkers are getting the short end of the stick because foreign countries are cheating on trade," he said.
Brown, who has been pushing the Trump administration to take tougher action on steel, especially imports from China, said that while, “I understand the cautionary notes by my colleagues,” the United States must take action to counter Beijing.
China’s overcapacity of steel has been a big source of concern for Trump and for his predecessor. The Obama administration made it harder for Beijing to sell cheap steel in the U.S., but lawmakers like Brown have pushed for more action.
The U.S. imports steel from more than 110 countries and territories. Much of it comes from important allies such as Canada, Brazil, South Korea and Mexico.
That aspect of the trade debate was raised by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the House’s tax-writing chairman. He told Trump that “everyone in the room” supports his tough approach on trade, but warned that the tariffs could affect U.S. relationships.
“You have to be careful to make sure our allies are with us," Brady said.