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President demands antiChina tariffs

Issued: 2018-03-13

White House

After the administration's top trade official presented a package targeting $30 billion a year in imports, the president asked for an even bigger number.


03/13/2018 02:26 PM EDT

President Donald Trump has long promised to get tough on trade, but the issue has provoked fierce division among his advisers. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

President Donald Trump is getting ready to crack down on China.

Trump told Cabinet secretaries and top advisers during a meeting at the White House last week that he wanted to soon hit China with steep tariffs and investment restrictions in response to allegations of intellectual property theft, according to three people familiar with the internal discussions.

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During the meeting, which hasn’t been previously been reported, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer presented Trump with a package of tariffs that would target the equivalent of $30 billion a year in Chinese imports. In response, Trump urged Lighthizer to aim for an even bigger number – and he instructed administration officials to be ready for a formal announcement in the coming weeks, according to two people involved in the administration’s trade deliberations.

That sent senior officials at the White House, Treasury Department, State Department, Justice Department, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and other key agencies scrambling this week to finalize the proposal. While the details were still in flux, aides said the administration is considering tariffs on more than 100 Chinese products ranging from electronics and telecommunications equipment to furniture and toys.

Those tariffs are expected to be rolled out as soon as next week, the officials said, adding that the timing could slip. The pending announcement comes after Trump unveiled steep duties on steel and aluminum imports, infuriating Republicans in Congress and many of his own aides.

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The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the White House declined to comment, and the Treasury Department did not immediately comment. “We don’t comment on internal meetings, but no final decisions have been made on content or timing,” said a White House official.

The president has long promised to get tough on trade, but the issue has provoked fierce division among his advisers. Now, as Trump looks ahead to the midterms and his own reelection campaign, the president has told people close to him that he will no longer allow his staff to stop him from moving forward with policy ideas he strongly supports.

National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, who strongly opposed the steel and aluminum tariffs, announced last week he will soon resign and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who also privately expressed skepticism of Trump’s trade proposals, was fired on Tuesday. “I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want,” Trump said Tuesday.

Tariffs on Chinese products could provoke potentially disastrous retaliation against U.S. exporters, including U.S. farmers who rely on the Chinese market as a major destination for soybeans, pork and other commodities, experts have warned.

The go-it-alone approach could also further stoke tensions with U.S. allies that are also opposed to China’s trade policies, but may view the action as counterproductive to a broader solution.

But tough action against China could earn more support in Congress than the recent steel and aluminum tariffs, which Republican lawmakers condemned as overly broad and harmful to allies. However, lawmakers could still view any China action with skepticism given the chaotic way in which tariffs were rolled out last week.

In addition to the tariffs, the Treasury Department is still working to finalize restrictions on Chinese investments as part of the upcoming trade action, although they will likely only be introduced “in concept” as officials continue to consider how broad any action should be, according to an administration official familiar with the planning.

The work on the investment restrictions is focused on making the action as legally defensible as possible, not only at the World Trade Organization but also in accordance with the U.S. Constitution and U.S. laws, the official said.

The Treasury, State and Justice Departments have all insisted on a thorough review of the tariffs to avoid a repeat of the fallout from Trump’s original travel ban, which was knocked down by U.S. courts, the official said.

The administration is also considering restricting Chinese visas or tightening controls on exports of certain goods or technologies that have both military and civilian uses, two of the administration officials said.

The visa restrictions could hit Chinese students going to school in the United States, especially graduate students in science and technology programs, as well as other Chinese nationals working in sensitive jobs like at national laboratories. But some administration officials have raised objections to the visa restrictions and it’s unclear whether they’ll be included in the final package.

The trade crackdown against China would represent Trump’s biggest trade action yet, as he tries to take on Beijing’s massive industrial policy, which often results in U.S. corporations losing valuable technology to Chinese state-controlled companies.

The move would also come only weeks after Trump inflamed trade tensions with allies and foes alike by slapping tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum.


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