Steelmakers helped get Trump elected. Does he have their backs?
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Steel producers in the U.S. are loving the attention they've received from President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE, but will the love last in light of current events?

Since the fall of 2016, when steel emerged as a key topic in the U.S. presidential debates and longtime industry issues became the stuff of living room and social media conversations across the country, the steel industry in the U.S. has felt emboldened.

The upbeat sentiment is reflected by the bellwether S&P Global Platts price of steel: U.S.-made, hot-rolled coil, a sheet product, is now $660 per short ton. The price averaged $598/st during President Obama’s two terms. 

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Toward the end of the U.S. presidential debate on Oct. 9, then-candidate Trump first pointed to the struggling U.S. steel industry, saying he would take action to protect it from international competition. He put a bullseye on Chinese steel, even though trade cases won by American steel producers in recent years already limit steel imports from China.

 

"You take a look at what's happening with steel, the cost of steel and China dumping vast amounts of steel all over the United States, which essentially is killing our steel workers and our steel companies," Trump said last fall.

Trump never let up on his trade messaging. Fresh off his final presidential debate (in which steel trade was also addressed) and stumping in the battleground state of Ohio, Trump said that he would create an "American Desk" within the Department of Commerce to manage trade matters.

Those in steelmaking and other manufacturing industries heard Trump steadily beating the drum on behalf of steel. As it turned out, so did enough voters in key steel-producing swing states — Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, etc. — to get Trump to the White House.

After the election, steelmakers continued to be pleased with what they were hearing about possible cabinet appointments — the names being mentioned were, by and large, sympatico to steel issues. 

Early in the new year, the U.S. steel industry applauded President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Robert Lighthizer to serve as U.S. trade representative due to his record as a staunch advocate for the steel industry and fair trade. 

In mid-January, President-elect Donald Trump's then-nominee for commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, said he planned to use the department's ability to self-initiate anti-dumping and countervailing duty investigations to send a message to foreign manufacturers ― a proactive stance that steel industry executives have long encouraged.

Ross was the former chairman of International Steel Group, an early 2000s agglomeration of struggling U.S. integrated mills, including the former Bethlehem Steel and LTV Steel operations, two of America's top five producers at the time.

The country may be on the brink of “a new American industrial resurgence,” with a "new-found enthusiasm for American manufacturing," U.S. Steel CEO Mario Longhi said at an industry conference.

Longhi was also one of the executives invited to the White House to discuss how to make U.S. manufacturers more competitive internationally.

“I left that meeting feeling very energized," Longhi said. "Based on the president’s own ideas and his openness to those our group expressed to him, I believe manufacturing’s GDP percentage here in the U.S. could increase in a very meaningful way.”

In addition, Trump has been supportive of new pipelines, infrastructure projects, urban development and trade law enforcement, Longhi explained.

Since taking office, Trump’s pro-business administration continues to try to boost confidence on both the steel supply and demand sides, driven by the president’s steel-friendly positions on trade enforcement, infrastructure spending, regulatory rollbacks, tax breaks and prohibiting new pipeline projects from using non-American steel.

“For the first time in eight years, the nation has an industrial policy,” President and CEO of Chicago Tube & Iron Donald McNeeley said at the S&P Global Platts Steel Markets North America conference in March. “Steel will drive trade policy,” McNeeley beamed.

But on April 11th, the president tweeted: “I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!”

This raised more than a few eyebrows within the U.S. steelmaking industry. If China does help with “the North Korean problem,” will any China-U.S. trade deal forsake some, or many, of the promises made to American steel? As recently as Wednesday, the president flipped on his campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator — something U.S. steel producers have long promoted.

Right now, American steel is enjoying a strong voice of advocacy coming from the White House. But the question ahead is whether that voice can withstand a potential geopolitical whirlpool or whether it gets drowned out.

 

Joe Innace is the content director of Metals/Americas for S&P Global Platts. He's also a contributor to Platts Global Metals Awards’ Insight Magazine.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.