The Trump Administration launched an investigation of U.S. steel imports Wednesday that could result in broad import tariffs, officials said.
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross ordered the investigation under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act, which gives his department broad authority to launch investigations to determine the effects of imports on national security. Ross said the Administration ordered the investigation because of Trump's campaign commitment to strengthen the U.S. steel industry and because of an expected boost in defense needs to fulfill Trump's ambitious — but as yet unfunded — plans to boost military spending.
Ross said the report may "result in the recommendation to take action on all steel imports," adding no decisions have been made and that the department is still in the research phase. "We’re groping here to see whether the facts warrant a more comprehensive solution that would deal with a very wide range of steel products and a very wide range of countries," Ross said.
The investigation will be led by Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security, which last studied the steel industry in 2001, determining then there was no detrimental effect on national security from the imports. The statute has previous been used to study the effect of oil imports and of uranium, and requires that the reports be concluded and submitted to the president within 270 days.
The U.S. already places tariffs on specific steel imports from China, but the investigation could clear the way for even wider protectionist measures. As a candidate, Trump frequently promised to boost "American steel," but Ross cautioned against prejudging the outcome of the investigation. "No decision has been made whether or not to do so and if so what amounts or on what products," Ross said of tariffs.
Trump is signing a largely symbolic memorandum Thursday in conjunction with the launch of the investigation, directing the Department of Commerce to expedite the probe it self-initiated and has promised to speed up.