Republicans on Capitol Hill were fuming after the White House abruptly announced it would begin imposing steel and aluminum tariffs Friday on US allies Canada, Mexico and the European Union.
The move Thursday came after Republicans had tried to convince the administration for months to target China with tariffs rather than US trading partners, and it could trigger Republicans on Capitol Hill to consider taking action against their own President on trade.
“I disagree with this decision,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who had quietly tried to convince Trump to hold back on the action, said in a statement. “There are better ways to help American workers and consumers. I intend to keep working with the president on those better options.”
The clear – and public – break between the President and top congressional Republicans had been simmering for months, with weeks of behind-the-scenes efforts to walk back, or just water down, what Trump and his team pledged to put in place. But Thursday’s move underscored the depth of the divide between the two sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, even as a legislative counter to the action was far from a sure thing, aides said.
For Republican lawmakers, the administration’s decision came as a surprise, according to several senior GOP aides. Republicans didn’t get wind that it might be coming until Wednesday evening, and the White House briefing for congressional staff didn’t take place until after the announcement.
One Republican senator, who asked not to be identified, complained Thursday about President Donald Trump’s decision to impose the tariffs, 25% on steel imports and 10% on aluminum imports.
“I don’t like trade wars. There are no winners in trade wars. And this scares me,” the senator said.
For his part, Trump has largely maintained his own posture on tariffs – one he highlighted with a single two-word tweet on Thursday: “FAIR TRADE!” – on the grounds that he was pursuing “reciprocal trade,” even amid warring factions over the efficacy of the strategy inside the White House.
The exemptions for allies that had been initially proposed were considered a potential piece of the ongoing negotiations with Canada and Mexico over a revised North American Free Trade Agreement, negotiations that have continued in fits and starts for months. But with a resolution far from clear, and despite the Capitol Hill pushback, the tariffs were set to go into effect at midnight.
House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady released a statement that said the tariffs “are hitting the wrong target.”
“When it comes to unfairly traded steel and aluminum, Mexico, Canada, and Europe are not the problem—China is. This action puts American workers and families at risk, whose jobs depend on fairly traded products from these important trading partners. And it hurts our efforts to create good-paying US jobs by selling more ‘Made in America’ products to customers in these countries,” the Texas Republican’s statement said.
The news Thursday reinvigorated discussions about whether Congress would intervene, a point that had been put to rest months ago when the Trump administration announced it would impose new steel and aluminum tariffs across the board only to turn around and issue a wide list of exemptions to allies – which Republicans applauded – while it negotiated.
Still, congressional options are limited. Over the last several decades, Congress has outsourced key trading decisions to the executive branch, and taking back that power would require a serious, united front from GOP leaders in a midterm election year.
“I call on the administration to continue the exemptions and negotiations with these important national security partners to find a solution and address the damage caused to American exporters. And the administration will need to come to Capitol Hill to provide answers about the indiscriminate harm these tariffs are causing our local businesses,” Brady said.
Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, put it simply: “This is a big mistake.”
“These tariffs will raise prices and destroy manufacturing jobs, especially auto jobs, which are one-third of all Tennessee manufacturing jobs. I have urged President Trump to focus on reciprocity – do for our country what our country does for you – instead of imposing tariffs, which are basically higher taxes on American consumers,” the Tennessee Republican said.
Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, released a statement that said the move was “dumb.”
“This is dumb. Europe, Canada, and Mexico are not China, and you don’t treat allies the same way you treat opponents. We’ve been down this road before – blanket protectionism is a big part of why America had a Great Depression. ‘Make America Great Again’ shouldn’t mean ‘Make America 1929 Again,’” Sasse said in the statement.
“Bad news that @POTUS has decided to impose taxes on American consumers buying steel and aluminum from our closest allies–Canada, the EU, and Mexico (with whom we run a trade surplus on steel). In addition to higher prices, these tariffs invite retaliation,” tweeted Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican.