By Jacob M. Schlesinger, Michael C. Bender and Peter Nicholas
WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump ramped up his "America First" trade policy Thursday, signing proclamations that impose steep tariffs on imported steel and aluminum in a bid to favor those U.S. industries but over strong objections from lawmakers, allies, and even some top members of his own administration.
Mr. Trump said in a White House ceremony where he was joined by cheering workers that "we're going to show great flexibility" by considering exempting military allies, and will start by sparing Canada and Mexico immediately. That was a switch from previous signals that no country would be exempt and suggested that the global outpouring of criticism over the past week had succeeded in softening the administration's approach.
In making his announcement, Mr. Trump cast the tariffs -- something he had promised during the presidential campaign and he saw as a key part of his surprise election victory -- as just one step, albeit a big one, in his intensifying plans to reorient decades of American trade policy.
"We lose $800 billion a year on trade," he said referring to last year's U.S. trade deficit. "It's gonna start changing."
Mr. Trump then outlined his broader coming trade agenda, including rewriting existing U.S. trades pacts and a continuing sweeping investigation of Chinese trade practices, issuing a veiled threat that even bigger penalties are looming against Beijing. "We're going to cut down the deficits (with China) one way or another," he said.
The president also vowed, without offering any details, a new broader global tariff regimen down the line, a "reciprocal tax," or "a mirror tax" that would aim at slapping the same level of duties on trading partners that U.S. firms face in those countries.
Even when focusing on the steel and aluminum tariffs being signed Thursday, Mr. Trump cast them as part of his broader agenda to right what he considered longstanding wrongs and slights imposed on the U.S., especially by diplomatic friends. He suggested that some of the countries seeking exemptions from the metals tariffs would need to provide more funding for American military support, one of his longstanding demands.
"Part of this is going to be military," the president said in describing the coming process for countries seeking carve-outs. "Who is paying the bills and who is not paying the bills." He suggested he would try to extract a steep price from any nation seeking an exemption, saying "many of the countries that treat us the worst on trade and the military are our allies, as they like to call them."
Still, the policy that Mr. Trump unveiled Thursday was considerably softer than what he and aides indicated would be coming when they first announced plans a week ago to impose tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum import. At the time, they said those numbers were fixed and that no countries would be excluded. The goal, they said, was to give hard-hit domestic producers sufficient protection from foreign competition to ensure their long-term health, a condition the White House deems vital for American national security.
The details of the tariffs now appear dependent on negotiations with allies likely to unfold in the coming weeks and months. There will be a separate process for U.S. companies using steel and aluminum to seek exemptions for their products by arguing that they can't get sufficient supply from domestic producers.
Both Canada and Mexico would be exempt from the outset, though their continued exemption would be contingent on the outcome of ongoing negotiations to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement as well as broader talks about security ties among the neighbors, the senior administration official told reporters ahead of announcement.
At a cabinet meeting earlier in the day, Mr. Trump also suggested for the first time that there could be a carve-out for Australia, a U.S. ally he called a "great country" and a "long-term partner." "We'll be doing something with them," he said of Australia. "We'll be doing something with other partners."
Both Mr. Trump and a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the plans repeatedly used the word "flexible" to describe a policy that a week earlier had been described as strict and ambitious in its goal of blocking a significant amount of imports.
"This is a wonderfully flexible document," the administration official said, referring to the two proclamations. Asked if the White House was watering down its policy, he responded, "This is not a softening of our position in any way whatsoever."
He added, "We have structured these proclamations in ways which are unequivocally designed to defend our steel and aluminum industries." The proclamations, he added, will "allow us to deal with the security relationships we have."
The official didn't explain the process by which allies could seek exemptions, nor what considerations would factor into the decision to grant exemptions or tariff reductions. But it is likely that a long list of U.S. allies will seek exemptions, notably North Atlantic Treaty Organization members in Europe, and Japan and South Korea.
South Korea will pose a particularly nettlesome challenge, since administration trade officials consider it one of the worst offenders in dumping into the U.S. cheap steel products originating from China, while administration security officials consider it a crucial ally in combating North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
The administration official did say that the White House remained committed to blocking a fixed amount of steel and aluminum from flowing into the country. So for every country given relief from the plan, the burden may have to be increased on the rest of the world.
"If Canada and Mexico were to be excluded, we would perhaps maybe have to raise tariffs on everybody else to ensure our steel and aluminum industries are defended," the official said. He didn't say how high those tariffs would need to go. But when the Commerce Department last month gave Mr. Trump a series of options for carrying out the policies, one option presented was to spare most military allies and then impose a 53% tariff on 12 countries ranging from Brazil to China and Egypt.
Canada and Mexico were, respectively, the first and fourth largest sources of foreign steel in the U.S. in 2017, together accounting for one-fourth of all steel imports, according to a Commerce Department study conducted for the policy. The two countries ranked first and 11th in aluminum imports, accounting for 43% of foreign supplies, Commerce said.
In signing the tariffs, Mr. Trump is carrying out one of his core campaign promises, first unveiled in Pennsylvania steel country in June 2016. His vows to leverage trade policy to protect American workers contributed to his surprise victory in the industrial Midwest, and he has regularly credited it with winning him the White House.
"This is a promise I made during the campaign," the president said in making the announcement. He said that was a reason he ran, and won. "Part of the reason it happened was you," he said to the workers surrounding him. He revived some of his darkest campaign rhetoric about "factories left to rot and rust all over the place," their communities "turned into ghost towns." He turned to the workers and said "you guys know that, right."
After he spoke, Mr. Trump invited three of the workers, some holding hard hats, to come the podium to talk. They each thanked him for the orders. Scott Sauritch, a maintenance worker at a Pennsylvania steel factory talked about how father was laid off in the 1980s "due to imports" and the "devastation" it caused his family. But with Mr. Trump's new policies, he added, his father's "story didn't end."
Despite rhetoric about protecting American jobs, White House officials say the tariffs are crucial to U.S. national security, and are grounding them in a rarely used law authorizing tariffs to protect industries critical to national security.
The White House issued a fact sheet shortly before the announcement noting that "steel is required for a range of aircraft carriers, amphibious force ships, submarines, tanks, and light armored vehicles," while aluminum is used in a "range of ground weapons and aircraft."
Officials say the policies are already resuscitating the hard-hit steel industry, citing an announcement Wednesday by United States Steel Corp. that it will restart a blast furnace in Illinois and call back to work 500 employees.
And the White House has spent the past week minimizing any possible economic fallout from the moves, saying the benefits would far outweigh the costs on industries using steel and aluminum.
"There will be no significant price effects...or job effects downstream, " the administration official said Thursday. "This is simply fake news."
He said there would be "very, very, very small costs associated with these tariffs." He said the moves would add "a cent and a half to two cents" the costs of "a six-pack of soda or beer" made from aluminum cans.
Outside economists, business groups and metal-using industries have been far more dire in their forecasts.
"Trump steel tariffs could kill 45,000 auto jobs, equal to one-third of steel workforce," was the title of a blog item posted by Council on Foreign Relations analysts shortly before the announcement.
Beyond the immediate impact on the U.S. business and consumers, many economists and diplomats have been warning over the past week of a looming trade war marked by swift retaliation from trading partners that would crimp U.S. exports. The European Union has already warned it was ready to slap tariffs on American motorcycles, blue jeans, and bourbon.
And many free-traders worry about the longer-term impact on the world trading system, with the U.S. -- once the leading advocate of advancing free trade -- now seen as attacking it.
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