President Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods has further inflamed the relationship between him and Senate Republicans over trade, as the GOP lawmakers fight an increasingly losing battle to push Trump away from his protectionist instincts.
Pro-free-trade senators have tried private meetings with Trump, op-eds in prominent newspapers and other tactics to warn Trump away from a new round of tariffs on foreign cars and auto parts, as well as lifting existing levies on steel and aluminum products made abroad.
But the latest threat, which the Trump administration justified Monday by saying China had reneged on commitments it had made as part of a broader trade negotiation, only deepened concerns from GOP senators who have made little headway with Trump on trade.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who met with Trump last week on the issue, said Monday evening he was worried about the potential impact of Trump’s latest threat against China and that other Republicans were trying to make their case to the White House.
“I don’t think anybody is getting through on that issue at the moment,” said Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican. “We’re going to keep trying.”
Few policies have driven as big of a rift between the White House and congressional Republicans as trade, with two years of pushback from the GOP having barely influenced a president who campaigned on ripping up trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.
That much was clear in a private White House meeting late last week, when a half-dozen Republican senators on the powerful Finance Committee had assembled to argue against Trump’s tariffs, both on foreign steel and aluminum and the threatened levies on autos.
But Trump had tapped Peter Navarro, a White House trade adviser who carries little influence among Senate Republicans, to make a presentation to the senators on how tariffs were actually helping, according to an official briefed on the meeting.
“None of the members there cared for it or found it compelling,” said the official, speaking anonymously to disclose details of a closed-door discussion.
Asked how successful the Thursday meeting in the Roosevelt Room was, Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) responded Monday: “Not very successful.”
“He says, ‘I like tariffs,’” said Grassley, who insists that the steel and aluminum tariffs must be lifted before the administration’s new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada can be ratified by Congress. “I say, ‘I don’t like tariffs.’”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) similarly said nothing was resolved at the meeting with Trump.
“I think the president knew the meeting was stacked with senators who thought that the tariff issue needed to be resolved or we wouldn’t be able to pass the USMCA,” said Cornyn, referring to the updated version of NAFTA. “He made clear that he liked tariffs as an instrument to bring people to the negotiating table.”
Cornyn added: “It wasn’t necessarily a welcome message.”
The China threat also stunned senators who were convinced that the trade negotiations between two of the world’s largest economies were on track, particularly as Vice Premier Liu He was slated to lead a 100-person delegation to Washington this week to finalize a deal.
Instead, Trump sent the markets into a brief tailspin with his vow to increase tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods from 10 percent to 25 percent on Friday, while implementing a new 25 percent fee on a separate $325 billion of Chinese “untaxed” imports.
The Dow Jones industrial average on Monday plummeted more than 471 points, but recouped most of those losses by the end of the day — although the administration laid out its accusation against the Chinese of “reneging” on the trade commitments after the markets had closed.
“Any time you have a situation where we’re talking about additional tariffs or increasing tariffs, it is immediately reflected not only in the stock market but in pretty much every commodity we have,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said. “That’s part of the risk.”
The administration has looked at quotas as a potential way to defuse the tariff standoff, an option that U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer referenced on Thursday with senators, Grassley said. That would place limits on the amount of steel and aluminum shipped to the United States rather than imposing a financial penalty through tariffs, although the idea is also likely to run into similar concerns from Republicans.
Other Republicans on Monday tried to rationalize Trump’s threatened tariffs as primarily a negotiating tactic to put pressure on China to wrap up the trade deal.
“Well, of course I don’t like it,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who has protested Trump’s tariffs because of the retaliatory impact on farm country. “I hope it’s just the president’s way of negotiating . . . we’ve seen him do this in the past, and it brings people to the table.”