Trump to offer temporary tariff exemption for Canada and Mexico
One version of the plan, which was still being finalized ahead of an expected announcement on Thursday, would give Canada and Mexico a 30-day exemption from the tariffs, the officials said. The exemptions could be extended based on progress in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The move comes as the White House signaled a new flexibility after a six-day drama that has roiled relations with the country’s closest allies, triggered the resignation of National Economic Council chief Gary Cohn and spooked investors. Republicans in Congress have been urging the president to narrow his proposed global tariffs to avoid boomeranging on U.S. businesses and consumers.
Peter K. Navarro, the director of the White House’s Trade and Manufacturing Policy office, said Wednesday night on Fox Business that the president would meet Thursday at 3:30 p.m. with steel union workers and “sign the proclamations. And within about 15 to 30 days, the tariffs go into effect. The proclamation will have a clause that does not impose these tariffs immediately on Canada and Mexico.” Other officials said the timing of the announcement and details of the plan remained fluid and subject to change.
In advance of the meeting, Trump tweeted that it was important to “protect” the U.S. steel and aluminum industries, while also offering concessions to “real friends.”
But Trump also revisited the idea of using tariffs as leverage in trade bargaining and other talks — without specifically mentioning NAFTA. Trump wrote that flexibility is extended only to countries that “treat us fairly in both trade and the military.”
The White House shift came after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a last-minute appeal for flexibility, saying that overly broad tariffs would damage key security ties with U.S. allies.
On Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers accelerated their efforts to pull the president back from a potentially costly trade war that he has insisted would be “easy to win.”
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, released a letter signed by 107 House Republicans that urges the president “to tailor” the tariffs to address market distortions caused by Chinese surplus production depressing global metals prices.
“We urge you to reconsider the idea of broad tariffs to avoid unintended negative consequences to the U.S. economy and its workers,” the letter read. “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.”
The party’s extraordinary internal split was underscored when the Republican Study Committee, representing more than half of House Republicans, released a statement defending free trade and labeling tariffs a “tax on American consumers and businesses.”
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Freedom Caucus and one of Trump’s most trusted allies in Congress, has spoken with the president multiple times over the past week in opposition to the tariffs, said three people briefed on his efforts who were not authorized to speak publicly.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. ‘Chaos’ doesn’t really do it justice,” said Claude Barfield, a resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
Government lawyers have struggled in recent days to reconcile Trump’s public comments with the legal provisions they have been told to enforce. For example, Trump is trying to use the tariff threats to force Canada and Mexico to offer unrelated concessions in NAFTA. By publicly acknowledging this, he has potentially spoiled the legal standing of the tariffs, a senior administration official said, making it harder for them to design the prohibitions.
Earlier in the week, Trump suggested that he would exclude Canada and Mexico from the new levies only if they made concessions in negotiations aimed at reaching a new NAFTA deal. Officials from both countries rejected the demand, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling the new tariffs “absolutely unacceptable.”
Major business groups that are normally allied with the Republican Party joined the anti-tariffs chorus.
“These new tariffs would directly harm American manufacturers, provoke widespread retaliation from our trading partners, and leave virtually untouched the true problem of Chinese steel and aluminum overcapacity,” said Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Alienating our strongest global allies amid high-stakes trade negotiations is not the path to long-term American leadership.”
The Grocery Manufacturers Association warned that the import taxes would disrupt global supply chains and raise costs for consumers, while the Beer Institute chimed in with predictions of 20,000 job cuts by its members.
The American Institute of Architects said the import levies would “drastically increase” the cost of building materials, threatening the viability of the president’s infrastructure proposal.
Republican lawmakers also want the president to establish a “robust exclusion process” when he announces the tariffs so that businesses can apply for waivers to import products that cannot be obtained from domestic sources. The president may sign the official tariff order as soon as Thursday, but details of additional exclusions may not be ready for 30 days, according to one former U.S. trade official.
When the U.S. last imposed tariffs on imported steel in 2002, George W. Bush’s administration had a waiver process in place six months before the tariffs took effect.
“In the short term, it’s going to be chaotic,” said William Reinsch, a former Commerce Department official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The situation left lobbyists and economists alike unsure of the road ahead. By themselves, the tariffs are likely to have little impact on a $20 trillion economy that is already at full employment.