President Trump on Thursday signed a pair of proclamations that impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum while offering relief to some U.S. allies, as the president took his most significant step yet away from free trade but stopped short of the global tariffs his GOP allies begged him to avoid.
The tariffs, set to take effect in 15 days, do not apply to imports from Canada and Mexico so that U.S. officials can assess progress as they renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Other countries with a “security relationship” to the United States may seek exemptions by opening talks with the administration on “alternative ways” to address the threats the administration alleges their products pose to national security.

His effort to tweak his blanket tariff plan did not mollify critics.

In a rare show of spine, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) put out a statement, which read in part: “I disagree with this action and fear its unintended consequences. I am pleased that the president has listened to those who share my concerns and included an exemption for some American allies, but it should go further. We will continue to urge the administration to narrow this policy so that it is focused only on those countries and practices that violate trade law.”

One of the GOP’s major donors, Charles Koch, wrote in The Post: “The administration’s recent decision to impose major steel and aluminum tariffs — on top of higher tariffs on washing machines and solar panels — will have the same harmful effect. Without a doubt, those who can least afford it will be harmed the most. Having just helped consumers keep more of their money by passing tax reform, it makes little sense to take it away via higher costs.” For good measure, he lectured Trump and his enablers: “Tariffs will not add thousands of American jobs. Instead, the research shows that, while they preserve some jobs that would otherwise disappear, they reduce many other higher productivity jobs. The net effect will be not more jobs, but lower overall productivity. They also reduce choice, competition, innovation and opportunity.”

The Business Roundtable also blasted Trump: “These tariffs are a major unforced error by President Trump, putting America’s economic progress at risk.” Its written statement continued:

The tariffs will cause significant harm to industries that rely on imported steel and aluminum. Higher production costs will make American-made products more expensive and less competitive around the world — putting tens of thousands of American jobs at risk. Our nation’s trading partners can and will retaliate by imposing new tariffs of their own. Furthermore, using “national security” as an excuse to unilaterally impose tariffs opens the door for other countries to do the same — allowing them to bypass long-established international trade rules to gain an unfair advantage over American businesses and workers.

Some members of Congress are even considering — gasp! — reclaiming their constitutional authority over tariffs. CNN quoted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) as saying, “I’m going to — as soon as it comes out if it is anything approximating what he’s talked about — introduce legislation to nullify it. I’m assuming I won’t be the only one to do that.” Considering his colleagues’ timidity, he shouldn’t bank on too much help. At least he’ll have on his side fellow Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who eviscerated the president’s national security rationale: “National security should play an important role in our trade decisions. But it should not be used as an excuse for protectionism. President Trump’s contention that steel and aluminum imports are threatening our national security and defense industrial base is simply not supported by the evidence,” he said. “The Department of Defense assesses that its programs are able to acquire all the steel and aluminum necessary to meet national defense requirements. In fact, by potentially triggering significant increases in the price of steel and aluminum, President Trump’s new tariffs could harm our national defense by raising the cost of production for critical military systems needed to sustain the United States’ comparative military advantage against our adversaries, from ships, to armored vehicles, to fighter aircraft.”

Even some of Trump’s most ardent defenders seemed ready for a fight. Freedom Partners’ executive vice president weighed in: “In no way will tariffs lead to a more competitive economy, nor will they add thousands of American jobs. Harmful trade policies like this will only hurt American consumers and businesses by driving up manufacturing costs and diminishing productivity. History has proven that the unintended consequences of tariffs are vast and serious, and the ones announced today threaten to undermine our growing economy and the relief that millions of Americans are feeling as a result of tax reform.”

These Republicans and business groups understand that Trump is putting at risk an economy that had been humming along. Not only will a weakened stock market and economy counteract any benefit they hope to obtain from the tax cut, but it may specifically hurt their constituents employed in industries that use steel and aluminum (which employ many more workers than the steel industry at this point). As an ideological matter, tariffs raise the ire of conservative economic pundits and activists like few other issues. It’s a tax. It’s big government. It’s big government picking winners and losers. And it’s a recipe for killing growth.

Come to think of it, why did all these Republicans — who heard Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-free trade message over and over again in the campaign — not believe him? Self-delusion is a powerful toxin, but it’s no excuse for having backed and defended an economic illiterate. They and the country will pay the price.