After several months of tough talk and even tougher tariffs, President Trump may be pulling some punches in his “America First” global trade offensive.
The president has deferred until next year a decision on imposing 25 percent tariffs on imported automobiles and is considered likely to hold off on new trade restraints on Chinese imports when he meets China’s President Xi Jinping later this month at the Group of 20 summit — refraining for now from moves that would mean higher prices for American consumers.
Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, this week also publicly rebuked a prominent advocate of hard-line trade measures, White House adviser Peter Navarro, saying he was “way off base” with recent remarks assailing Wall Street supporters of a compromise with China.
“The recent market turmoil, House election result and angst in farm states has the Trump team rattled on trade,” said one multinational executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about White House deliberations. “The president still wants to pull the trigger on crazy stuff like an autos tariff, but he’s lost some of his swagger, and a lot of people around him are saying he needs to back away from extreme action.”
Still, Trump often tacks between assertive acts and dealmaking talk. So any pause in his campaign is likely to be temporary, according to several former government officials and trade analysts.
“The president may do a deal on tariffs or a pause,” said one trade attorney who worked in the White House for former president George W. Bush, alluding to the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires that runs Nov. 30 to Dec. 1. “But the president really likes tariffs. His idea of a deal is the standstill agreement he did with the E.U., which didn’t really solve anything.”
The attorney was referring to the outcome of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s visit to Washington in July, which resulted in a deal for Europe and the United States in seeking the elimination of tariffs on all industrial-goods trade except for automobiles.
More than four months later, the two sides have made limited progress identifying areas in which regulations and commercial standards could be harmonized. They have yet to begin formal negotiations over tariffs and are unlikely to do so for months, Cecilia Malmstrom, the European Union’s trade negotiator, told reporters Wednesday during a visit to Washington.
“We are willing to negotiate a smaller agreement focused on industrial goods . . . but we haven’t started negotiating anything,” said Malmstrom, who reiterated that the E.U. would retaliate with its own tariffs on American products if Trump imposed levies on European cars.
Under the July agreement, the two sides agreed not to “go against the spirit of this agreement” — language the Europeans say precludes Trump’s proposed auto tariffs.
The president and his trade team met at the White House on Tuesday to review a draft Commerce Department report that cites national security concerns as a rationale for imposing tariffs on imported cars.
Trump opted to hold off on the proposed tariffs, which are opposed by American automakers as well as major U.S. trading partners, according to Bloomberg News.
The American Automotive Policy Council, which represents the country’s “Big Three” car companies, says the tariffs will eliminate more than 600,000 jobs and raise the cost of the average imported vehicle by $6,000.
“The administration may view the threat of tariffs as more potent than actually imposing them. Unlike tariffs on intermediate goods, tariffs on autos will be very visible to consumers from the outset,” John Veroneau, a partner at Covington & Burling and a former U.S. trade negotiator, wrote in an email.
Last year, the United States imported more than $340 billion worth of passenger cars, light trucks and related parts, according to the International Trade Administration.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Chinese officials continue to prepare for the Trump-Xi meeting on the sidelines of the annual G-20 summit. Liu He, a Chinese vice premier and one of Xi’s closest economic advisers, will visit Washington before the summit for further talks, Kudlow told CNBC.
There is little chance the two presidents can resolve all of the irritants in the U.S.-China relationship. Many trade analysts anticipate a limited deal, perhaps involving a halt to additional tariffs while diplomats renew efforts to negotiate a comprehensive accord.
The administration wants Xi to bring a new offer to the G-20 even as Trump threatens additional trade measures. Trump has imposed tariffs on approximately $250 billion in Chinese imports and threatened to extend the levies to an additional $267 billion of products, effectively taxing all Chinese goods entering the United States.
However, doing so would mean greater pain for American consumers.
“They don’t want to do the additional $267 billion,” said William Reinsch, a trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.