March 8, 2018 at 7:29 PM
The frantic lobbying went late into the night and on into the morning, as business executives, lawmakers and foreign diplomats tried to stop President Trump from implementing steel and aluminum tariffs on Thursday that could set off a trade war.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appealed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) called as many people as she could in the White House to share her state’s concerns. And a major GOP donor who is opposed to the tariffs, and who is accustomed to having his questions quickly answered, pressed West Wing aides for details but found his inquiries met with shrugs or silence.
“The people in the building have no idea what’s about to happen,” he said Thursday morning.
As it turned out, Trump announced the controversial tariffs with potential exceptions for some allies — another ending to another Trump political episode. The president thrives on conflict and runs his White House as if he were the producer of a television show, placing characters in situations pumped up with tension and setting up tantalizing cliffhangers to keep viewers tuning in.
Economists, members of Congress and industry leaders have warned that Trump’s tariffs could have real consequences, possibly leading to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs if industries that rely on steel or aluminum see prices rise amid a trade war. But Trump dismissed such objections as he led Washington through another whirlwind day.
In the morning, amid high anticipation, Trump took to Twitter with a tease.
“Looking forward to 3:30 P.M. meeting today at the White House,” he wrote at 7:38 a.m. “We have to protect & build our Steel and Aluminum Industries while at the same time showing great flexibility and cooperation toward those that are real friends and treat us fairly on both trade and the military.”
The response inside and outside the White House: What meeting?
There was no mention of the event on the president’s schedule, and the major focus of the day was supposed to be a discussion of gun violence in video games. A number of aides thought tentative plans for a tariff announcement had been called off. Soon, there were rumors that the teased event would be canceled or delayed.
But at 3:30, the event was held as the president had promised. Standing in the White House’s Roosevelt Room with 10 metal workers, Trump announced that the United States would soon charge a 25 percent penalty on most imported steel and a 10 percent penalty on most imported aluminum. He said that he hoped the tariffs would push U.S. companies to “buy American.”
“I’m delivering on a promise I made during the campaign, and I’ve been making it for a good part of my life,” Trump said. “I said, ‘Let’s run for president,’ and look what happened. And part of the reason it happened is you and my message having to do with you.”
Although the idea of imposing tariffs on some imports was cheered at Trump’s campaign rallies, Republican lawmakers and members of his administration have argued that instituting penalties on steel and aluminum could prompt other countries to impose retaliatory tariffs that hurt American farmers, producers and manufacturers, including in states that were key to the president’s unexpected win in 2016.
“I don’t believe anybody wins a trade war, quite honestly,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said on CNN on Thursday morning. “There may be people that are harmed less, maybe America is in a better position, but I think there’s so much collateral damage. I think it’s a risky and dangerous strategy.”
Ryan and McConnell — who also expressed concerns — had telephone conversations Thursday morning with Trudeau, who “emphasized the complementary and integrated nature” of their respective steel and aluminum industries, according to the prime minister’s office. Aides to both Ryan and McConnell confirmed the calls but declined to comment further.
Meanwhile, Japanese diplomats were calling around Washington seeking clarification on whether the tariffs would apply to their $1.6 billion in annual steel shipments to the United States, according to a person familiar with the calls.
Some clarity came as spoilers leaked out — including some major ones from the president himself during a late-morning Cabinet meeting.
“We have a very big meeting at 3:30,” Trump said. “I’d call it an economic meeting, something we have to do to protect our steel, our aluminum in our country.”
Trump wouldn’t say exactly what he had planned, but promised that it would be “very fair” and also “very flexible.” As reporters shouted out questions, the president confirmed that he would implement the tariff numbers. Canada and Mexico probably would not have to pay the tariff, he said, and countries that are friendly with the United States — for example, Australia — could also receive an exemption.
“I’ll have a right to go up or down, depending on the country, and I’ll have a right to drop out countries or add countries,” Trump said. “We just want fairness. Because we have not been treated fairly by other countries.”
With the news out, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross clinked together their water glasses. Mattis had raised concerns about the tariffs while Ross defended them — even as Trump’s top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, announced his resignation in apparent protest over the decision.
Hours later, the president walked into the Roosevelt Room and greeted his guests of honor — nine men and a woman who work at steel or aluminum plants. Scott Sauritch, a longtime worker at U.S. Steel Corp. in the Pittsburgh area and president of his union local, said he had to drive through the night to get to Washington in time for the event.
“You are truly the backbone of America,” Trump told these workers, as cameras rolled. “I’ve known you and people that are very closely related to you for a long time. You know that. I think it’s probably the reason I’m here. So I want to thank you.”
Trump briefly mentioned the specifics of the new tariffs, but he mostly spoke longingly about the golden days of U.S. manufacturing and criticized countries like China and Japan for their “aggressive” practices.
“Our factories were left to rot, and to rust all over the place,” Trump said at one point. “Thriving communities turned into ghost towns. . . . The workers who poured their souls into building this great nation were betrayed, but that betrayal is now over.”
Trump asked some of the workers to speak. A worker from Kentucky said the tariffs would allow his plant to run at 100 percent capacity instead of 40 percent. Sauritch, the union leader from the Pittsburgh area, spoke emotionally about his father, Herman, losing his job in the 1980s because of an increase in imports.
“Well, your father Herman is looking down” from heaven, Trump said. “He’s very proud of you right now.”
“Oh, he’s still alive,” Sauritch said.
“Oh, he is?” the president responded. “Well, then he’s even more proud of you.”
Trump invited the workers to take a photograph in the Oval Office — only to be reminded that he still needed to sign the paperwork making the tariffs official.
As Trump signed his name using a fat permanent marker, he proclaimed, “About time, right?” One of the workers murmured, “Yes, sir.”
The group then retired to the Oval Office for a photo session. The door closed, providing a made-for-television ending to the day.
But it was not over. Shortly after 5 p.m., the president popped into the White House press briefing room, where only a few journalists remained.
“South Korea is going to be making a major statement at about seven o’clock,” the president said, revealing that another episode was about to begin.
Philip Rucker, Heather Long, David Lynch and Ashley Parker contributed to this report.