Republican and Democratic senators let loose Wednesday with scathing criticism for President Donald Trump’s escalating tariffs and tariff threats that are attracting retaliation from around the globe.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross spent much of a two-hour Senate Finance Committee hearing defending the tariffs, but most of the lawmakers appeared not to be swayed.
“I don’t think you’re empathetic enough to agriculture,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., told Ross, the hearing's lone witness. “These people might go out of business while you’re creating your trade wars.”
Lawmakers criticized Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, which have prompted retaliation from Mexico, Canada, the European Union and China, as well as the $450 billion in tariffs Trump is threatening to slap on China to punish it for intellectual property theft. China is threatening to hit back with billions of dollars of its own tariffs, including an additional 25 percent tax on U.S. soybeans, wheat and corn.
Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, criticized the Trump administration’s claim that it was imposing global steel and aluminum tariffs to protect U.S. national security. Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and John Thune, R-S.D., complained about the haphazard way in which China was being threatened.
“Recently Mexico announced it will impose tariffs of 20 percent on U.S. pork in retaliation for U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs,” Hatch said. “I just don’t see how the damage posed on all these sectors could possibly advance our national security.”
Ross played down the effects of retaliatory tariffs on U.S. farmers and ranchers and stressed that the aggressive trade actions are needed to defend national security.
In the case of steel and aluminum, Trump evoked the seldom used Section 232 trade law that allows the U.S. to hit foreign countries with tariffs in order maintain national security. The president argued that global over-production of steel and aluminum – mostly by China – was sharply degrading the U.S. ability to produce the metals and forcing U.S. companies to shut down mills.
Only about 5 percent of U.S. steel and aluminum imports come directly from China, but Ross defended the U.S. decision to also hit Mexico, Canada, the European Union and other allied countries with tariffs by explaining the Chinese metals often enter through third-party countries – so-called trans-shipments.
Canada and the EU are threatening retaliation, and Mexico has already struck back with tariffs on U.S. pork, dairy, potatoes and apples.
Hatch, Bennet, Portman and others demanded explanations of how Canadian steel threatens U.S. national security. Ross admitted that the U.S. had no evidence of Chinese steel coming into the U.S. through Canada. He also said that the U.S. would lift the tariffs on Mexico and Canada if they agreed to U.S. demands during negotiations to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Another admission from Ross that boosted lawmakers' arguments was that the U.S. exports more steel to Canada than the U.S. imports from its NAFTA neighbor to the north.
Republican Sen. Pat Toomey represents Pennsylvania, home to ketchup giant Heinz, and he said he is especially frustrated with the steel and aluminum tariffs. Heinz, he explained, moved a ketchup factory from Canada to his home state because of the duty-free trade created under NAFTA, but that could change soon. Canada is preparing to retaliate against U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs, and ketchup is being considered for new tariffs, along with orange juice, yogurt, cucumbers, poultry products, strawberry jam, maple syrup and whiskey.
But Ross was adamant in his defense of both the 232 tariffs and the threatened tariffs on China.
“The president’s objective is not to end up applying tariffs,” he said. “His objective is not to end up in a trade war … His objective is to get to a lowering of trade barriers – both tariff and non-tariff ones – and to protect intellectual property.”