GOP worries trade wars will last as Trump engages in temporary tiffs
Republicans on Capitol Hill are by now familiar with the playbook they must follow when the latest controversy comes out of the White House: Decline to comment, shake a head, pretend to take a telephone call, and wait for the news cycle to move on to something else.
But top Republicans are beginning to sound an alarm about President Trump’s escalating trade war with allies, including China, Mexico and Canada, fearful that rising retaliatory tariffs may slow the booming economy and imperil their chances in the midterm elections.
In interviews this week, with almost 100 days before November’s elections, Republicans have been notably critical of Trump’s high-stakes trade games, much more so than they were over family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump’s press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, or anything related to the Mueller investigation.
“I don’t support tariffs. I think that’s a bad strategy, but at the same time I also think that voters want to support policies and candidates who have gotten the economy to grow and put it where it is today,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he and other House Republicans had heard from constituents, especially farmers, who were concerned that tariffs would hurt their bottom lines.
“I don’t think it’s at a crisis level now, and I think many of us, including me, are urging the president to negotiate and get this done, because I don’t think a trade war is in anybody’s benefit,” Stivers said in an interview Wednesday.
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The concern comes because the Republican plan to defend their majority relies heavily on a growing economy. The stock market has risen dramatically since President Trump took office, and unemployment is at or near record lows in many states. Republicans have hinted openly that a Friday report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis will show the country’s gross domestic product grew rapidly in the second quarter.
But the trade war threatens to undermine the robust economic growth — and the GOP’s message just months before the midterms.
“The economy is basically the one thing they’ve got going for them,” Tom Davis, a former NRCC chairman when he represented northern Virginia in Congress, said of his fellow Republicans. “This trade stuff is explosive.”
The Trump administration has levied billions of dollars of tariffs on everything from steel and aluminum to washing machines and solar panels, and 818 individual goods imported from China. In retaliation, China, the European Union, Canada, Mexico and other nations have levied tariffs on billions in American goods.
Local news reports about the trade war’s impact on middle America have been almost uniformly negative, focusing on farmers, fishermen and even bourbon distillers who stand to lose billions as foreign nations find other sources for their imports.
Companies like Harley Davidson and BMW have said they may be forced to move production overseas in response to rising prices caused by new tariffs. Among companies that have reported their second-quarter earnings, about 40 percent mentioned the impact tariffs would have on their businesses during earnings calls with market analysts, CNBC reported.
Even President Trump’s re-election campaign may be impacted. Products the campaign is selling, including banners that read “Keep America Great” and “Trump 2020,” are among the goods imported from China on which the administration imposed tariffs.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey conducted this week found voters overwhelmingly believe raising tariffs will do more to hurt the economy than help. Among independent voters, just 16 percent said tariffs would help, while 56 percent said they would hurt. About a quarter of Republican voters said tariffs would be a drag on the economy.
“The farm economy cannot take this, and we need to get back to work and increase these exports,” said John Heisdorffer, an Iowa soybean farmer and head of the American Soybean Association.
The Trump administration said Tuesday it would provide $12 billion in relief for farmers whose sales have been impacted by the trade war. On Thursday Trump will visit Iowa, the state that produces more soybeans than any other – a crop hit hard by retaliatory tariffs from China.
Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), whose district is among those targeted by House Democrats this November, said the pressure on farmers especially concerned him, because the trade war might give the impression that Republicans have lost touch with some of their core voters.
“We’d like it to have been short term tariffs that are clearly targeted, but they’ve chosen to go the way they are going,” Walberg said of the Trump administration. “I would prefer to do a longer-term solution, but the Ag industry needs to know we haven’t lost track of them.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill have pressured the White House to roll back the escalation. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) have introduced separate bills to check a president’s power to unilaterally impose tariffs, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has resisted bringing those measures to the floor.
— Alexander Bolton, Melanie Zanona and Maya Lora contributed to this report.