Bipartisan support for Trump's China tariffs fracturing amid retaliation

FILE- In this Jan. 30, 2018, file photo, tractor-trailer trucks move cargo in shipping containers out of the Port of Savannah in Savannah, Ga. President Donald Trump announced Friday, June 15, 2018, that starting next month the U.S. will impose a 25 percent tariff on up to $50 billion in Chinese imports. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, File)

Republicans and Democrats who initially applauded President Donald Trump's efforts to punish China for intellectual property theft, steel and aluminum dumping and other unfair trade practices, said they are increasingly unable to support the administration's policy.

While the president's sweeping steel and aluminum tariffs that hit U.S. allies like Canada, Mexico and the E.U. was met with broad bipartisan opposition, there was a general consensus on both sides of the aisle in support of targeted trade actions against China.

That consensus is fracturing after President Trump's Tuesday announcement threatening to target an additional $400 billion worth of Chinese goods with a 10 percent tariff. Trump issued the warning after China retaliated over the weekend to the U.S. imposition of a 25 percent tariff on $50 billion of Chinese products.

The trade action was taken on the basis of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative's months-long Section 301 investigation that concluded China was engaging in restrictive trade practices and intellectual property theft.

As American producers and consumers start to feel the impact of the trade retaliation, lawmakers are openly questioning the administration's end game.

"The problem is the president's people are all over the place," Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown told Circa. "There are such cacophonous voices at the White House that even the people who support the president's trade efforts, like I do, don't always know where to land."

Brown said he and his colleagues have been begging the White House to outline its long-term strategy for protecting the U.S. industrial base against Chinese steel overcapacity and it has come up short. "It's pretty clear that the administration doesn't exactly know what it's doing here," he said.

Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, emphasized that the time has come to "hold China to account" for intellectual property theft and other trade violations, but advised, "I'm concerned, obviously, about the escalation."

Tariffs have traditionally been used as a temporary remedy and may not result in the outcome the administration is hoping for, Portman told Circa. "I believe China takes the long view and this could result in short-term negative economic impacts for us," he said.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has long demanded action to curb Chinese trade abuses and currency manipulation, but has become one of the harshest critics against the president's steel and aluminum tariffs. Asked about President Trump's latest tariff threats to China, Corker said, "Everything about this is random."

He argued the administration would be well-served to lay out a plan and present it to Congress "instead of just waking up in the morning and deciding what they're going to do."

U.S. and international markets reeled following Trump's Tuesday statement announcing that "further action must be taken to encourage China to change its unfair practices." American farmers and ranchers watched the price of their goods drop on the world market as some manufacturers saw a double-digit rise in the price of aluminum and steel.

In a Wednesday hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross defended the president's actions against critics who worried of a mounting trade war.

"We’ve been at a trade war forever, the difference is now our troops are coming to the ramparts," Ross said.

"The problem we have is, if we’re not going to fix the big problem — which is the unfair trade practices, the abuse of intellectual property — now, when are we ever going to fix this," he said. Ross insisted the tariffs were one of the last remaining tools available to pressure Beijing after trade negotiations broke down last month.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., acknowledged that there was near universal agreement that the United States should focus on China's trade abuses, "but this thing seems to be escalating out of control fairly quickly."

The Chinese tariffs have already hit the U.S. farm belt, driving down the market price of wheat, corn, soybeans, beef, pork and other goods. With China accounting for approximately 60 percent of U.S. soybean exports, producers in multiple heartland states including South Dakota, Iowa and Kansas are anticipating hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Ks., said the administration's trade actions were "putting agriculture commodities in a retaliation bullseye."

Ross insisted that the market price decline on agricultural goods "has been exaggerated by speculative activity."

Ross responded similarly to recent reports of steel and aluminum prices increases by more than twice the amount of the administration's tariffs, saying it was the result of "antisocial behavior" by industry participants and not related to the tariffs. The price spike came as the administration finalized its May 31 decision to impose a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum.

Ross said the Commerce Department is investigating the price increases to see if people are "improperly profiteering off of the tariffs."

Trump's trade spat with China has not shaken all of his supporters. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., praised Trump's tariffs over the weekend and urged the American public to be patient through the initial pains of Chinese retaliation.

"It’s going to take a little bit of toughness at the beginning. China will bark back," Schumer said in an interview with New York radio host John Catsimatidis. "But they need us more than we need them — President Trump is right about that — and we should be strong."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., applauded Trump's tariff announcement on Friday, saying the president is "headed in the right direction."

While some of the president's trade advocates get cold feet following China's retaliation, President Trump reiterated his intent to press ahead and finally address the U.S.-China trade imbalance.

"This should have been done many years ago. We have no choice," he said in a speech before the National Federation of Independent Business. "We have to do something about it...But we’re going and we’re going to make it fair."

China hawks in the administration have argued the United States has more leverage over China than critics will admit. In a call with reporters this week, White House senior trade advisor Peter Navarro, insisted that "China has much more to lose" in a tit-for-tat tariff fight with the United States.

Administration officials expect the overall impact of U.S. tariffs to be much broader than China's retaliatory measures. In 2017, China exported roughly $505 billion in merchandise to the United States. That same year, the United States exported less than $130 billion.

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