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 TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown 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 JohnsonKavanaugh, accuser to testify publicly on Monday Kavanaugh furor intensifies as calls for new testimony grow House panel advances DHS cyber vulnerabilities bills 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 BradyHow the Trump tax law passed: Breaking the gridlock  House GOP bill a mixed bag for retirement savers China imposes new tariffs on billion of US goods: report 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 PortmanGraham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' Overnight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens Bipartisan group wants to lift Medicaid restriction on substance abuse treatment MORE (R-Ohio), a leading trade expert in Congress who served as U.S. Trade Representative under George W. Bush.

Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenOvernight Energy: Trump Cabinet officials head west | Zinke says California fires are not 'a debate about climate change' | Perry tours North Dakota coal mine | EPA chief meets industry leaders in Iowa to discuss ethanol mandate 74 protesters charged at Capitol in protest of Kavanaugh Big Oil’s carbon capture tax credit betrayal 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 PerdueAdministration announces plan to streamline oil and gas extraction in national forests The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — How will Obama impact the midterms? Here are the administration officials who have denied they wrote the anonymous NYT op-ed 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 AlexanderOvernight Health Care: GOP plays defense over pre-existing conditions | Groups furious over new Trump immigration proposal | Public health advocates decry funding transfer over migrant children Overnight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh confirmation in sudden turmoil 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 GrahamGOP opens door to holding Kavanaugh committee vote this week Press: Judge Kavanaugh must withdraw Kavanaugh: 'I will not be intimidated into withdrawing' 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 RossTrump team wildly underestimated the costs of tariffs The hot race for 5G will change the world we know now Wilbur Ross ordered to give deposition in 2020 census case: report MORE are among the officials who pressed Trump for a protectionist approach on trade.

Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynFord's lawyer: Hearing doesn't appear to be designed for 'fair', 'respectful' treatment GOP opens door to holding Kavanaugh committee vote this week GOP senator accuses Dems of ‘character assassination’ on Kavanaugh MORE (Texas) said he was worried about recent comments by Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOn The Money: 0B more in Trump tariffs kick in | China calls off trade talks | CEO confidence slips over tariffs | GOP to move spending bill over Trump concerns | Behind the scenes look at how the GOP tax law passed How the Trump tax law passed: Breaking the gridlock  5 things to know about Trump's escalating trade war with China 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 LeeThis week: Kavanaugh nomination thrown into further chaos Ex-college classmate accuses Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct Kavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week 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 FlakeGOP opens door to holding Kavanaugh committee vote this week Police arrest 128 protesting Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill GOP launches counteroffensive on Kavanaugh 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.”