WASHINGTON- President Donald Trump indicated on Thursday that he was willing to exclude some countries from the steel and aluminum tariffs for national security reasons.
“We’re going to be very fair, we’re going to be very flexible but we’re going to protect the American worker as I said I would do in my campaign,” Trump said during a meeting with members of his cabinet Thursday.
The move was widely expected to set off a trade battle that Trump insists the US can win — but which even some of his closest advisers worry could seriously damage a growing American economy.
While Trump’s message that some countries may be excluded from the tariffs is a softening of his initial plan, he maintained that the figures he announced last week — a 25% tariff on steel and a 10% tariff on aluminum — would stand.
Trump told reporters in the Cabinet Room that certain countries would be excluded, including Canada and Mexico, and kept open the possibility of excluding other nations like Australia, which are important national security allies.
“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.
An administration official said the final order would include a built-in mechanism to allow the President to exclude certain countries, but wouldn’t itself include specific country exclusions.
However, some administration officers are concerned that excluding Canada and Mexico from the steel tariffs, something Trump raised as a way to gain leverage in ongoing NAFTA negotiations, could undercut the legal arguments for the tariffs.
Trump’s advisers insist the tariffs are necessary for national security and are using that argument as the legal basis for them. But NAFTA is unrelated to national security, and excluding Canada and Mexico for that reason could prompt legal challenges at the World Trade Organization.
Top Republican lawmakers and the leaders from major US trading partners have resisted the tariffs plan. More the 100 GOP members of Congress wrote Trump on Wednesday urging him to “reconsider the idea of broad tariffs to avoid unintended negative consequences.”
Sen. James Lankford, who serves on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Intelligence Committee, and the Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, also expressed concern about the tariffs in a letter.
“As outlined in both the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, maintaining relationships with allies and partners is vital to international stability and the national security of the United States. Our military and intelligence communities benefit from these alliances and partnerships, and in today’s strategic environment it is of utmost importance that we continue to foster constructive relationships with international partners that share our nation’s concerns and interests with emphasis on addressing the most critical challenges facing the U.S. and global steel industry,” the letter wrote.
The European Union on Wednesday detailed a list of US-made goods that it would subject to reciprocal tariffs if Trump follows through with his plan. China also indicated it was preparing an appropriate response.
Trump has declared that trade wars are “easy to win” and campaigned on the promise to renew American industries by slapping barriers on trade from other countries.