President Donald Trump on Thursday did something he has rarely done: He enacted a policy most Republicans oppose.
In a hastily assembled White House ceremony, Trump signed orders imposing tariffs of 25% on imported steel and 10% on aluminum. The signing followed days of confusion — and months of intense infighting — in an Administration that has been sharply divided on trade policy.
“Our industries have been targeted for years and years — decades, in fact — by unfair foreign trade practices,” Trump said. “It’s going to stop.” On one side of the President stood a group of steel and aluminum workers; on the other, a select group of his economic advisers — but, notably, not a single Republican lawmaker.
The policy Trump issued Thursday was watered down somewhat from the blanket tariffs he announced last week he planned to impose. The duties will not take effect for 15 days, according to the White House, and will exempt Canada and Mexico, key U.S. allies and trading partners. The trade law that authorizes the tariffs, Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, is nominally about protecting national security, but key national-security officials such as Defense Secretary James Mattis didn’t attend Thursday’s ceremony and reportedly oppose the policy.
Trump, as he noted in his remarks, has believed in tariffs as a boost to American manufacturing for decades, predating his entry into politics. His stance on trade differentiated him from other Republicans in 2016 and struck a nerve in the industrial Midwest.
The officials who accompanied Trump on Thursday — U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and economic advisor Peter Navarro — comprised the White House faction that supported Trump’s protectionism. But another faction, led by chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, and including Republican congressional leaders, strongly opposes tariffs. The two groups have been fighting tooth and nail for the past year, with the free-market faction succeeding until now in forestalling an action conservatives warn could have severe economic consequences.
Trade was just one of many issues on which Trump took a heterodox stance in his campaign. His campaign rhetoric included, at times, promises to provide universal healthcare and take on the pharmaceutical industry; to raise taxes on hedge-fund managers and protect Social Security and Medicare; to dial down military engagement and spend billions of dollars building up infrastructure, among other stances not typical of a GOP nominee. In recent weeks, he has also speculated about liberalizing immigration policy and pursuing gun control.
But in practice, when it comes to policy Trump as president has done little to affront his fellow Republicans. The accomplishments of his first year — tax cuts, deregulation, a conservative Supreme Court justice, undermining the Affordable Care Act — are things a President Ted Cruz would likely have done, had he been elected instead. Despite all the hype about Trump’s party-busting populism, he has mostly governed as a conservative.
That’s one reason why Republicans in Congress, despite being exasperated by Trump’s tweets and scandals, have rarely resisted him outright: There’s not much he’s done in the realm of policy that they actually oppose.
Trump’s tariff announcement was the rare exception. So vociferously did Cohn oppose it that he reportedly resigned rather than see it on his watch. Republican leaders decried the move in unusually explicit terms: “I disagree with this action and fear its unintended consequences,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said. (Some Democrats, meanwhile, cheered the action, and AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka lauded it.)
In true Trumpian fashion, the President dithered to the end, torn between his protectionist impulses and the conservatives begging him to change his mind; some White House staffers learned of the President’s plans when he tweeted about the announcement, which was not yet on his official schedule, on Thursday morning. But in the end, Trump went through with the tariff he’s long sought.
For too long, “the workers who poured themselves into building this great nation were betrayed,” he said. “That betrayal is now over.”
With reporting from Tessa Berenson
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