A growing group of Republican lawmakers are making a last-ditch effort to convince President Trump to reverse course — or at least temper his positions — on economic tariffs, according to people familiar with the conversations.
In recent days, the House Freedom Caucus, an influential bloc of hard-line conservatives in the House, has been privately urging Trump to back off his proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, creating an even bigger schism between the White House and Congress on the president’s signature issue ahead of this year’s midterm elections, said three people briefed on those talks who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Freedom Caucus and one of Trump’s most trusted allies in Congress, has spoken with the president multiple times during the past week and relayed the group’s staunch opposition to the president’s trade stances, the people said.
Other Freedom Caucus members have also lobbied the White House, a senior administration official said.
On Monday, Meadows acknowledged to reporters that any change to Trump’s policy direction would probably have to come through conversations with the president rather than through legislation.
“It just is not going to happen. We are all smart people around here, and there is zero chance that there is going to be a legislative fix that comes out of the House or Senate to address this issue,” Meadows said, adding “I’m not optimistic that a legislative response will make it. We had a hard time repealing Obamacare.”
The effort by Meadows to pull back Trump comes as House Republican leaders, such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), are making similar overtures to Trump publicly and privately. But the president has continued to resist backing down and claims in calls and meetings that his tactics will give the United States more negotiating leverage with foreign counties in the coming months, the people said.
Trump is determined to sign a tariff package this week, a senior administration official said, though the final language is not approved, and even senior aides internally are guessing what it will say.
“There are potential carve-outs for Mexico and Canada,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a news conference on Wednesday.
Inside the West Wing, the departure on Tuesday of White House economic adviser Gary Cohn has made it difficult for congressional Republicans to get traction on trade with other more populist advisers, such as White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, comfortably ensconced in the president’s inner circle, according to lawmakers and aides who have been working on the issue.
On Wednesday afternoon, members of the Freedom Caucus, along with other House Republicans, were trying to organize a meeting with Trump later this week to go over their concerns, according to people involved.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) has been the point person in planning that possible huddle with the goal to present Trump with a less rigorous and more targeted package, the people said.
But that meeting is unlikely to happen, a senior White House official said, casting doubt on the president’s willingness to fully hear out his GOP critics this week.
The president has also been signaling in closed-door discussions that he is not willing to budge much. Lawmakers and White House officials, trying to woo Trump away from his protectionist stances, say they have had little luck doing so.
At a recent meeting with Ways and Means committee members, Trump surprised those gathered by complaining loudly about Canada and telling the lawmakers that the U.S. ally and northern neighbor was a problem when it came to renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and other pacts, according to people familiar with the conversation. Trump has been told repeatedly by U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer that this was the case, a senior White House official said.
Trump told the lawmakers that while people might expect his biggest aggravation on NAFTA and trade to be Mexico, which he has repeatedly targeted in speeches and rallies, he sees Canada as a more vexing foe — and that the United States needed to be tougher, the people said.