Trump’s economic policies spur GOP angst

Trump’s economic policies spur GOP angst
© Greg Nash

GOP nerves are on edge over the direction of President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE’s economic policy, given the prospects for new tariffs and the resignation of Gary Cohn, whom they viewed as a voice of reason within the administration.

For a GOP used to dealing with pro-trade Republican presidents, the threat to impose a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports has been a thunderbolt.

It has left lawmakers worried about what could come next and whether Trump might follow through on threats to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico or limit car imports from Europe.

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“It’s just not a good thing to be threatening trade wars,” said Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonJuan Williams: Putin wins as GOP spins GOP senator: Harley-Davidson is right to move some production overseas GOP senator: Trump’s policies doing 'permanent damage' MORE (R-Wis.). “If this is a grand strategy in terms of a tough negotiating stance, I hope the negotiation succeeds. It’s just, from my standpoint, a pretty risky strategy if that’s what this is all about.”

Republicans won some good news on Wednesday when the White House signaled that Trump’s plan to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports could be modified to exclude U.S. allies.

“We expect that the president will sign something by the end of the week and there are potential carveouts for Mexico and Canada based on national security, and possibly other countries as well,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters.

Her comments suggested a GOP effort to sway the administration to soften Trump’s approach was succeeding.

On Wednesday afternoon, more than 100 House lawmakers led by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradySenate panel advances Trump IRS nominee GOP looks to blunt Dems’ attacks on rising premiums Meet the woman who is Trump's new emissary to Capitol Hill MORE (R-Texas) delivered a letter to Trump urging caution.

“Because tariffs are taxes that make U.S. businesses less competitive and U.S. consumers poorer, any tariffs that are imposed should be designed to address specific distortions caused by unfair trade practices in a targeted way while minimizing negative consequences on American businesses and consumers,” they wrote.

Senate Republicans have lobbied senior administration officials in recent days.

“I’ve talked to administration officials a lot in the last few weeks, including this morning and last night, trying to encourage them to, in my view, take a more targeted approach that would be better for the people they’re trying to protect,” said Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Bipartisan bill would bring needed funds to deteriorating National Park Service infrastructure The Memo: Trump allies hope he can turn the page from Russian fiasco MORE (R-Ohio), a leading trade expert in Congress who served as U.S. Trade Representative under George W. Bush.

Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenGOP senators visited Moscow on July 4, warned Russia against meddling in 2018 election: report GOP lawmakers plan official visit to Russia later this week GOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border MORE (R-N.D.), like other senators from farm states, is worried that the tariffs could lead to retaliation against U.S. exports. He shared his misgivings with Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueUS puts business ahead of children’s health Western states brace for most severe wildfire outbreak since 2012 Agriculture chief: Farmers 'understand' trade spat with China MORE.

“The concern is a lot of time that when it comes to retaliation they go after ag first,” said Hoeven. “The effort right now is to talk to the administration and find out what they’re going to do.”

But even if the steel and aluminum tariffs that Trump is expected to announce on Thursday are softened, it will not completely calm Republicans unnerved by signs that their president is leaning into his economic nationalist policies.

Cohn’s decision to resign, which was linked to the tariff announcement, was widely seen as a sign that forces moderating Trump’s populist instincts on trade were losing power.

Cohn is a former Goldman Sachs chief operating officer who was instrumental in the passage of Trump’s tax-reform package. He frequently battled with officials within the administration who disagreed with him on trade, climate change and other issues.

“I think he provided President Trump with a valuable source of advice on trade policy,” said Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderDems pressure GOP to take legal action supporting pre-existing conditions Trump administration to explore importing prescription drugs Bipartisan bill would bring needed funds to deteriorating National Park Service infrastructure MORE (R-Tenn.), who noted that Cohn reminded Trump of the negative fallout from a decision by then-President Bush in 2002 to impose global steel tariffs.  

Just as worrisome for Republicans is that other voices within the administration could be further elevated with Cohn gone.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Polling analyst: Changes to legal immigration ‘the real sticking point among Democrats’ Graham would consider US-Russia military coordination in Syria MORE (R-S.C.) has publicly criticized White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, who is seen as having a significant influence on immigration, among other issues. Director of Trade Peter Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossOn The Money: Commerce to review uranium imports | Lawmakers urge Trump not to impose auto tariffs | White House wants steeper cuts to EPA funding | Google hit with massive B fine Auto industry groups, lawmakers urge Trump administration to avoid tariffs on auto imports Census Bureau faces hiring woes amid low unemployment MORE are among the officials who pressed Trump for a protectionist approach on trade.

Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynSenate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Senators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits Senate approves resolution warning Trump not to hand over US officials MORE (Texas) said he was worried about recent comments by Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinDem lawmaker calls for cryptocurrency probe after Mueller indictments Meet the woman who is Trump's new emissary to Capitol Hill On The Money: Fed chief lays out risks of trade war | Senate floats new Russia sanctions amid Trump backlash | House passes bill to boost business investment MORE linking the tariff threat to NAFTA.

“I saw some comments from Mr. Mnuchin sort of tying the tariffs to NAFTA and saying, ‘Well, this may be an issue in the negotiation on NAFTA,’ ” he said.

“It seems to me he’s connected those two. I was already concerned about NAFTA and hope this doesn’t add to the complexity,” Cornyn said.

Cornyn expressed concern about the advice the president will receive from senior advisers on trade issues once Cohn is gone.

“I want to make sure the president is getting good advice because of the concerns raised by not only these tariffs but trade generally. I think Mr. Cohn was one of the best people giving him good advice,” he said.

Several GOP lawmakers are privately voicing pessimism over the likelihood of Trump finding a proponent of free trade with as much expertise and clout as Cohn to become the next director of the National Economic Council.

“Who from the A team with any gravitas is going to take that job?” remarked one Republican senator, pointing to the exodus of senior officials from the administration.

Senators at a lunch meeting on Wednesday discussed whether Trump’s actions could be blocked by a court ruling. Others are pushing a legislative response.

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeWisconsin GOP Senate candidate rips his own parents for donations to Dems GOP moderates hint at smooth confirmation ahead for Kavanaugh GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE MORE (R-Utah) has a bill that would narrow Trump’s ability to invoke national security as a justification for tariffs, but it is seen as a long shot.

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeSenate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Senate approves resolution warning Trump not to hand over US officials Flake: Trump's Russia summit ‘truly an Orwellian moment’ MORE (R-Ariz.) noted that the bill would need to win Trump’s signature or muster the two-thirds votes in both chambers to override a veto.

“Sixty-seven votes would be tough to come by,” Flake said, citing the threshold in the Senate. “The best route right now is to try to talk the president out of it.”