Trump isolated in his push for tariffs on foreign cars
President Donald Trump’s threat to slap massive tariffs on imported cars and auto parts will rocket back into the spotlight this week with a high-stakes visit to the White House by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who is expected to bring with him some kind of concessions from the European Union designed to make it easier on Trump to declare victory and back off.
White House officials opposed to the auto tariffs have high hopes that Juncker’s visit could head off a bruising automotive trade war, which even some of Trump’s top advisers think could be potentially disastrous, raising car prices and destabilizing a thriving industry on the eve of the midterm elections.
Story Continued Below
“There is not a lot of support for the auto tariffs internally,” one senior administration official said. “There are many people who don’t want to see it go through.” This person said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who generally supports the president’s aggressive trade policy, is among those skeptical of the auto tariffs. The official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the issue, declined to be identified by name.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Two other senior administration officials, who also declined to be identified by name, described a similar dynamic on the auto tariff probe being conducted by the Commerce Department, with only Trump and hawkish senior trade adviser Peter Navarro supporting the idea of actually going through with the penalties.
Lighthizer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow all generally oppose the auto tariff idea while holding out hope that Trump’s position is just a negotiating tactic that will eventually pay off, these people said.
“On the auto issue, it’s pretty lopsided inside the administration against doing this,” one of the two other senior administration officials close to the process said. “It’s pretty much just the president and Navarro who are in favor.”
Trump has repeatedly threatened to slap tariffs as high as 25 percent on all imported cars and auto parts in the next few months. The Commerce investigation could conclude within weeks with recommendations going to the president shortly after.
The auto industry, Republicans in Congress, U.S. trading partners and even some of Trump’s top advisers argue that the tariffs could be major political and economic negatives. Trump takes the opposite view, arguing that auto tariffs would be a political winner in Rust Belt states like Ohio and Michigan in the midterms.
Juncker visits the White House on Wednesday, and administration officials and European diplomats all have different ideas on what he might offer. Some inside the White House are hopeful that Juncker will agree to lift E.U. tariffs on American automobiles for two or three years in return for Trump dropping the investigation into whether auto imports into the U.S. present a national security threat.
Juncker may have other demands of his own, including a reduction in U.S. tariffs on European automobiles, especially a 25 percent levy on trucks.
For the moment, it remains unclear how much time Juncker — who is not technically a head of state — will get with the president. Some White House officials say the face time could be severely limited, especially since Trump tweeted angrily at the E.U. last week after it slapped a $5 billion fine on Google for allegedly abusing its dominant position in mobile.
“I told you so! The European Union just slapped a Five Billion Dollar fine on one of our great companies, Google. They truly have taken advantage of the U.S., but not for long!” Trump tweeted on Thursday.
The first senior official who described opposition to the auto tariffs within the White House said Juncker’s face time with the president will depend on what kind of offer he brings with him. “He’ll get all the time he needs, but only if he has something interesting to say,” this person said.
Ahead of the Juncker visit, E.U. officials are preparing for the worst by assembling a list of American exports to slap with tariffs if the U.S. goes through with the auto levies.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday expressed guarded hope for Juncker’s visit.