Trump's tariff talk provokes rarely seen urgency among GOP

Republicans in Congress have learned to ignore President Donald Trump's policy whims, knowing whatever he says one day on guns, immigration or other complicated issues could very well change by the next.

But Trump's decision to seek steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports has provoked rarely seen urgency among Republicans, now scrambling to convince the president that he would spark a trade war that could stall the economy's recent gains if he doesn't reverse course.

The issue pits Trump's populist promises to his voters against the party's free trade orthodoxy and the interests of business leaders. Unlike recent immigration and gun policy changes that require legislation, Trump can alter trade policy by executive action. That intensifies the pressure on Republican lawmakers to change his mind before he gives his final approval for the penalties as early as this coming week.

Trump on Saturday showed no sign of backing away, threatening on Twitter to impose a tax on cars made in Europe if the European Union responds to the tariffs by taxing American goods. He also railed about "very stupid" trade deals by earlier administrations and said other countries "laugh at what fools our leaders have been. No more!"

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called Trump after the president's surprise announcement, and continues to hope the White House will reconsider the decision. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and others have offered the president their own private counsel. Some are appealing to his desire for a robust stock market and warning that the trade penalties could unravel some of the gains they attribute to the tax bill he signed last year.

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, tried one of the most direct lines that lawmakers have to the White House: talking to Trump through cable TV news.

"The president has not yet issued these tariffs," Brady told Fox News on Thursday, hours after Trump announced the tariff targets. "He's been continuing to listen."

Listening to various viewpoints, though, has never been the gripe against Trump.

Unlike President Barack Obama, who often irked lawmakers for lecturing them during meetings, Trump retains a level of popularity among Capitol Hill Republicans in part because he's more than happy to invite lawmakers in and hear them out.

But problems have arisen when members of the legislative branch leave the White House under the impression Trump was on their side — or at least willing to consider their views — only to find out later that his support drifted away.

The dynamic played out repeatedly during last year's health care debate over replacing the Affordable Care Act. This past week, Trump publicly belittled a modest gun background check bill from the second-ranking GOP Senate leader, John Cornyn of Texas, during a televised White House meeting. Democrats appeared giddy with the president's praise of gun control proposals, while Republicans fumed.

"I love the president, but people disagree sometimes," said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.

True to form, Trump's flirtations with gun control showed signs of subsiding by week's end. A day after his meeting with lawmakers, the president tweeted that he had a "Good (Great!) meeting" in the Oval Office with the National Rifle Association. The gun lobby's executive director also tweeted afterward that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence "don't want gun control."

It's unclear what gun control measures, if any, Trump may endorse. But his back-and-forth on the matter was reminiscent of his waffling on immigration this year.

Earlier this year, with a government shutdown looming, Trump welcomed lawmakers for a meeting at the White House to discuss immigration law changes. During the televised session, he told them he would take the political "heat" and sign into law whatever Congress could agree to pass.

Two days later, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., dashed to the White House to present their bipartisan agreement. But the session ended in heated exchanges after Trump rejected the bill and used crude language to question why the U.S. would want to welcome immigrants from Africa and some other nations.

"Let's talk about two Trumps - the Tuesday Trump and the Thursday Trump," Graham said later during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. "Tuesday we had a president that I was proud to golf with, call my friend."

"I don't know where that guy went. I want him back," Graham said.

Republicans, who hold a majority in the House and Senate, have largely learned to take these setbacks in stride. They all but shrug off the president's policy pivots, just as Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., often decline to comment on the Trump tweet of the day.

But on trade tariffs, Republicans say the stakes are too high for them to sit back and wait for Trump to change his mind. Indeed, their relentless public condemnation of the tariffs was notably sharper than their typical handling of the president's policy whims.

Not wise, said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. A "big mistake," said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn. "Kooky," said Sasse.

Trump, after the White House's own internal deliberations, proposed a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum. That quickly sparked global warnings of retaliation and left the financial markets reeling.

Republican lawmakers, and some outside groups, want Trump to at least consider a more targeted approach, or exemptions for countries that engage in what they view as fair trade practices.

"We're all urging the president, look, continue to narrow this to these unfairly targeted products," Brady said.


Follow Lisa Mascaro at

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Nation & World

Man facing child porn charges after 'gingerbread house' full of explicit photos found in forest
Man facing child porn charges after 'gingerbread house' full of explicit photos found in forest

A Mill Creek, Washington, man is facing charges after a treehouse was found in the Snoqualmie National Forest with child pornography hanging on the walls inside. KIRO-TV first reported on the discovery off the middle fork of the Snoqualmie River in February. The unauthorized treehouse was reported by an employee of the Department of Natural...
Parents of bullies could face $500 fine if Pennsylvania bill becomes law
Parents of bullies could face $500 fine if Pennsylvania bill becomes law

A Pennsylvania lawmaker has introduced legislation that could have parents footing the bill if their child bullies another kid at school. It started out as a rule in Sharpsburg. WPXI checked with the police officer who enforces the law and he said it is working as a deterrent. He also said it's raised awareness of how serious bullying is, and...
Pit bull bites children inside North Carolina elementary school
Pit bull bites children inside North Carolina elementary school

Police have found a dog that they said got into a south Charlotte, North Carolina, elementary school Monday afternoon and injured several children. It happened around 1:30 p.m. at Lansdowne Elementary School on Prett Court, near Providence Road. Animal Care and Control officials said a pit bull came into the playground area while children were outside...
How did crucifixion kill Jesus?
How did crucifixion kill Jesus?

On Friday, Christians around the world commemorate with prayers and fasting the death of Jesus Christ, three days before the arrival of Easter and the hope of the Resurrection. The church calls on believers to solemnly reflect on the pain and suffering of Jesus of Nazareth, particularly beginning at 3 p.m. when it is believed Jesus died as he hung...
Police offer tips for spotting suspicious mail with Austin serial bomber on the loose
Police offer tips for spotting suspicious mail with Austin serial bomber on the loose

Tulsa police are helping area residents stay aware of suspicious packages after multiple package explosions in Austin, Texas. The police department posted the tips on Twitter Tuesday. Local residents said that even though the explosions happened in Texas, they are nervous and extra cautious when checking the mail. Police said residents should...
More Stories