Washington (AFP) – The White House signaled Wednesday it would water down plans for contentious tariffs, in the face of threats from trade partners, financial market jitters and a revolt within Donald Trump’s own Republican party.
The US administration said the president still plans to sign off on global steel and aluminum tariffs as early as Thursday, but indicated there could yet be exemptions for infuriated allies.
“There are potential carve-outs for Mexico and Canada, based on national security. And possibly other countries as well,” press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters at the White House.
From shortly after dawn, administration big guns rushed to the cameras, trying to limit the fallout from a Trump policy that has already sparked fears of a global trade war, rattled stock markets and prompted the top White House economic advisor to quit
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross insisted the tariffs were “thought through” and not the caprice of a president running a White House that appears to be careening off the rails.
“We’re going to have sensible relations with our allies,” he told CNBC, “we’re not looking for a trade war.”
But Trump’s impromptu move has already set Washington on a collision course with its largest trading partner the European Union, which sounded a stern warning Wednesday as it readied to retaliate with targeted tariffs of its own on everything from steel to denim to peanut butter.
“Trade wars are bad and easy to lose,” EU President Donald Tusk told a news conference Wednesday, directly rebuffing Trump’s assertion last week they were “good and easy to win.”
Warning of “a serious trade dispute” between Washington and the rest of the world, Tusk said leaders of the bloc would hold emergency talks on the issue on March 22-23.
Markets sold-off early morning on news that Wall Street favorite Gary Cohn had resigned from the White House in protest at Trump’s decision.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin joined the damage limitation effort, claiming that the tariffs, although still in flux, would not hurt the administration’s projections for three percent growth.
“We’re comfortable that we’re going to manage through this so that it is not detrimental to our growth projections,” he told Fox Business.
In Washington, a fierce battle over Trump’s proposals raged behind the scenes.
Trump’s move has surprised and angered allied lawmakers and the Republican-controlled Congress has whispered about legislation that would block their own president from acting.
“We are still trying to work with POTUS to avoid that outcome,” a congressional source told AFP.
– Stormy waters –
Even Trump’s most accommodating allies have begun to speak out against what amounts to a major break with Republican orthodoxy.
“There is a lot of concern among Republican senators that this could sort of metastasize into a larger trade war,” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell told reporters.
“Many of our members are discussing with the administration just how broad, how sweeping this might be,” he added. “There’s a high level of concern about interfering with what appears to be an economy that’s taking off in every respect.”
Sanders also tried to soothe unease at Cohn’s departure, saying a decision on his replacement would come soon.
“The president’s got a number of people that could potentially fill that role,” she said.
“What I can assure you obviously is he’s going to make a good pick that can help him continue to further building a strong economy and continue creating jobs and continue focusing on long-term economic success.”
Despite Republican agitation, it is far from clear what the final tariffs will look like.
Cohn’s departure has given the president’s “nationalist” advisors like arch China skeptic Peter Navarro and Commerce boss Ross the whip hand.
Cohn, a 57-year-old former Goldman Sachs executive, had lobbied passionately against the tariffs before losing out.
Data released Wednesday showed US foreign trade deficit widened in January to its highest level in nine years, heaping pressure on Trump, who had campaigned on a promise to reverse that trend.
Trump took to Twitter to blame the deficit on “bad policies & leadership” from his White House predecessors.
He also took aim at perennial trade bogeyman, Beijing.
“China has been asked to develop a plan for the year of a One Billion Dollar reduction in their massive Trade Deficit with the United States,” he tweeted.
“Our relationship with China has been a very good one, and we look forward to seeing what ideas they come back with. We must act soon!”
There could be stormier waters ahead, with a pending administration report on intellectual property theft expected to hammer China and possibly provoke further tariffs.