WH, Commerce secretary defend trade attacks on Canada

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross defended the administration’s decision to slap tariffs on Canadian lumber in a rare appearance at the White House’s daily press briefing Tuesday.

“They are a close ally, they are an important ally, generally a good neighbor. That doesn’t mean they don’t have to play by the rules,” Ross said.

“Things like this I don’t regard as being a good neighbor, dumping lumber. And there’s a feeling in the dairy industry that they are a little bit abrupt in the action they took the week before.”

{mosads}Ross’s comments came the morning after the White House announced a 20 percent tariff on Canadian softwood imports following decades of disagreement between the two countries.

Ross also referenced Canada’s import tax on ultra-filtered milk, further ratcheting up trade rhetoric with the United States’ second biggest trade partner.

President Trump addressed that issue earlier Tuesday in a tweet, saying, “Canada has made business for our dairy farmers in Wisconsin and other border states very difficult. We will not stand for this. Watch!”

While no action on the dairy front has been announced yet, the U.S. will impose a “countervailing duty” of between 3 percent and 24 percent on Canadian lumber exporters.

Ross Tuesday lamented that Canadian softwood is grown on public land, which puts Canadian loggers at an advantage compared to U.S. loggers, who have to hit the open market to negotiate with landowners to cut down their trees.

The 20 percent tariff will raise $1 billion a year on the approximately $5 billion worth of Canadian softwood lumber used in American home construction.

The tariff extends retroactively to 90 days ago, which will raise another $250 million.

The actions, on top of the recent dairy dispute that Trump first brought up last week, illustrate the public fraying of relations between the neighboring countries. But Ross brushed aside the prospect of a potential trade war between the two countries when asked by reporters.

“That would be a stimulatory thing for all your readership. We don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said.

Ross said he did not “necessarily” believe that the lumber tariff would raise home prices in the U.S., arguing that land prices play a much larger role in that discussion than material prices.

And he agreed when asked whether the disputes with Canada illustrate the need to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) sooner rather than later.

“I think it does. Think about it: If NAFTA was functioning properly, you wouldn’t be having these kinds of very prickly, very unfortunate developments back to back,” he said of the dairy and lumber disputes.

“NAFTA has not worked as well as it should.”

As Commerce secretary, Ross rarely mixes it up with the press in a setting like the White House briefing room. But he readily deflected questions on a variety of issues, including the Paris climate agreement.

“Now you’re really getting outside my area,” Ross, who participates in discussions about the administration’s climate posture, said with a smile.

“I’m having enough difficulty dealing with the trade issues, rather than poaching someone else’s territory.”

And he refused to bite when another reporter attempted to pivot from the lumber dispute to the ongoing saga surrounding former national security adviser Michael Flynn, asking if softwood lumber would be the issue to finally take Flynn off the “front pages.”

“Is Michael Flynn now a trade issue? I wasn’t aware that he was,” Ross said as reporters laughed.

The question prompted White House press secretary Sean Spicer to attempt to usher Ross away, but he stayed to answer a final question on the French presidential election.

“Come any time, you’re always welcome,” reporters shouted as Ross left.

“I’m glad you are out of questions, because I’m out of answers,” Ross replied.

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