Republicans are bitterly protesting the Trump administration’s decision to impose sweeping tariffs on U.S. allies — alarmed that the White House ignored their frenzied lobbying campaign and afraid that the party could suffer at the polls in November.
The GOP’s free-traders were mollified this spring as the Trump administration exempted U.S. allies from steel and aluminum tariffs imposed on other countries like China. But on Thursday, that all changed as President Donald Trump imposed 10 percent tariffs on aluminum imports and 25 percent tariffs on steel imports from the European Union, Canada and Mexico.
The move thrusts the GOP back into an internecine war over free-trade policies that have defined the party for decades, just as Republicans mobilize for a hotly contested midterm campaign.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) called it “bad news” and predicted imminent retaliation from the key U.S. allies. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) warned that similar policies 90 years ago sparked the Great Depression.
“This is dumb. Europe, Canada, and Mexico are not China, and you don’t treat allies the same way you treat opponents,” Sasse said. “‘Make America Great Again’ shouldn’t mean ‘Make America 1929 Again.'"
“This is a big mistake. These tariffs will raise prices and destroy manufacturing jobs, especially auto jobs, which are one-third of all Tennessee manufacturing jobs,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who said tariffs are “basically higher taxes on American consumers.”
Most Republicans believed that the Trump administration’s tariffs on aluminum and steel would be relegated to China and that exemptions for allies would continue into the summer. So Congress was largely blindsided by the administration’s reversal.
Most senior Capitol Hill staffers weren’t notified of the decision until late Wednesday, and briefings on the new policies weren’t conducted until Thursday, according to Republican sources. Lawmakers were similarly caught off-guard, hoping that their campaign against Trump’s protectionist instincts would bear fruit.
“I don’t like trade wars. There are no winners in trade wars. There are only losers. And this scares me,” said a Republican senator. “A lot of us have talked to him, in person, repeatedly about this. He knows where we stand on it.”
The administration defended the tariffs as protecting domestic steel and aluminum industries. White House spokesman Raj Shah said tariffs on Canada and Mexico are aimed at China and enhancing national security.
“The president's actions are about protecting American steel, American aluminum. They’re critical for national security. And he’s worked to exempt certain countries and certain allies for which we have trading or security relationships. But in these instances it wasn't possible and the president took action,” Shah said on Fox News.
The U.S. has reached steel agreements with South Korea and Brazil, and agreements on both steel and aluminum with Australia and Argentina, the administration said. But that is little consolation to congressional Republicans who are furious about the administration punishing Canada, Mexico and Europe.
“The Trump administration’s trade policy is a disaster. Whacking critical allies with massive steel and aluminum tariffs under the bogus pretense of a national security threat is not in the best interest of the United States, our consumers or our businesses,” said a senior Republican aide.
Indeed, trade is the area where Republicans have grown most uncomfortable with the president. They generally tolerate his over-the-top Twitter account and have grown accustomed to his coarse rhetoric, in part because he has enacted and supported many of the center-right policies that the GOP has pursued for years, such as confirming conservative judges and cutting taxes.
Republicans worry that Trump’s protectionist trade policies could undermine all that and threaten a healthy economy before the midterm elections. Yet House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have shown no interest in passing legislation to block Trump’s tariffs or require congressional approval, a move that would essentially bring Capitol Hill to a standstill.
So for now, Republicans seem to believe their only move is to complain as loudly as they can, and hope someone at the White House is listening.
“These tariffs are hitting the wrong target. When it comes to unfairly traded steel and aluminum, Mexico, Canada, and Europe are not the problem — China is,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas). "I call on the administration to continue the exemptions and negotiations with these important national security partners.”
Rebecca Morin contributed to this report.