WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is expected as early as Thursday to sign off on his controversial plan to slap stiff tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, but in a surprise reversal the White House opened the door to exemptions for products from Canada, Mexico and other U.S. allies.
Carve-outs for certain countries from Trump’s proposed double-digit duties would mark a retreat from this insistence earlier that the levy would be across the board.
And that could mollify leading trading partners and allies that have criticized the tariffs and threatened to retaliate.
Excluding allies from the tariffs also could help Trump better focus on his intended target — China — especially when the United States and other Western powers have begun to take a more skeptical view of Beijing in light of the Chinese leadership’s increasingly assertive and expansionist activities.
Though China’s overproduction of steel is seen as the primary cause of a global glut, the United States gets a relatively small amount of imported metals from China. Instead, most U.S. steel and aluminum imports come from Canada and other allies.
So sharp opposition and threats of retaliation have come not from Beijing, but from Washington’s staunchest allies.
“Right now what this is doing is getting all of Europe’s attention and energy, (and a) focus on pushing back against the United States, not pushing on China,” said Jennifer Hillman, a Georgetown University law professor and former member of the World Trade Organization’s appellate body.
Trump’s announcement last week that he would apply blanket tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum shocked trading partners and led to the resignation of the White House National Economic Council director, Gary Cohn.
Wednesday, 107 House Republicans sent Trump a letter urging he “reconsider the idea of broad tariffs to avoid unintended negative consequences” to the economy.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that Trump’s proposed tariffs would be formalized by week’s end.
“There are potential carve-outs for Mexico and Canada based on national security and possibly other countries as well, based on that process,” Sanders said.
She said decisions would be made on a “case-by-case and country-by-country basis.”
Trump’s tariff authority comes from a U.S. law that allows the president wide discretion to apply duties or other restrictions if the Commerce Department has found imports present a threat to national security.
After formally being announced by the president, the tariffs must be implemented within 15 days. That window would give nations and companies time to request exemptions.
Canada is by far the largest single shipper of steel and aluminum to the United States. And Mexico, South Korea and Japan, as well as North Atlantic Treaty Organization members such as Germany and Turkey, stand to be among the biggest losers if the tariffs take effect.
China, by contrast, accounted for just 2.4 percent of all iron and steel imports to the United States last year.