WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s decision to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports drew rare bipartisan criticism from lawmakers, who warned the move could trigger a transatlantic trade war and hurt U.S. companies.
Trump signed proclamations Thursday allowing tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum to take effect later this month.
“The American aluminum and steel industry has been ravaged by aggressive foreign trade practices. It’s really an assault on our country,” Trump said during a hastily arranged event at the White House.
Surrounded by a group of steelworkers, Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Trump approvingly cited President William McKinley, a champion of protectionist economic policy, to support his trade decision.
“Many of the countries that treat us the worst on trade are our allies,” Trump added.
Administration officials said the tariffs would apply to every country in the world except Canada and Mexico, two key U.S. allies. During the event at the White House, however, Trump said that the two countries would be indefinitely exempted while negotiations continue regarding the North American Free Trade Agreement.
In imposing the tariffs, Trump broke with many members of his own party, none of whom joined him for the event at the White House.
A group of seven Republican senators, led by Joni Ernst of Iowa, warned in a letter Thursday that the administration risked “alienating key international partners that contribute to our ability to defend our nation and maintain international stability.” Many others argued this week the tariffs could lead to higher prices for other products, such as cars, planes, boats, soup and beer.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a frequent Trump critic, said he would introduce legislation to nullify the tariffs.
“Trade wars are not won, they are only lost. Congress cannot be complicit as the administration courts economic disaster,” Flake said in a statement.
“If you’re our allies, trading partners, you’ve got to be pulling your hair out right now,” he later told reporters.
Flake noted that when President Jimmy Carter imposed a tariff on oil imports in the 1970s, Congress voted to nullify them and even overrode a subsequent presidential veto to do so. A veto override, however, would require a two-thirds vote in each chamber ― a tall order for this Congress.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Thursday he disagreed with the decision, but he did not go so far as to suggest action to undo the tariffs.
“I am pleased that the president has listened to those who share my concerns and included an exemption for some American allies, but it should go further,” Ryan said in a statement. “We will continue to urge the administration to narrow this policy so that it is focused only on those countries and practices that violate trade law.”
Most Democrats were equally critical of the tariffs. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), for example, likened the move to “dropping a bomb on a flea.”
Conservatives and free-trade groups also panned the decision.
“Tariffs are a tax increase on American workers and their families. The president’s decision today to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports is disappointing, economically regressive and counterproductive,” Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James said in a statement.
Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers affiliate, also said he was “disappointed” by the tariffs. “These tariffs will raise prices on so many products that Americans buy every day. Tariffs can tank our economy.”