Jennifer Jacobs, Margaret Talev and Justin Sink
White House economic adviser Gary Cohn is summoning executives from US companies that depend on aluminum and steel to meet this week with President Donald Trump in a last-ditch effort to halt steep tariffs announced last week, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Cohn is arranging for a White House meeting on Thursday that would include representatives of breweries, beverage-can manufacturers and automakers, along with the oil industry. Trump is scheduled to attend the meeting, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a policy disagreement.
A Trump order to impose the tariffs would be a huge setback for Cohn, who has vigorously opposed the move, citing concerns that it would harm the economy. This decision is viewed inside the White House as a possible breaking point for Cohn, a former senior executive at Goldman Sachs Group , and some insiders believe he will depart if Trump doesn’t take his advice on the issue.
Trump advisers who favour the tariffs want him to sign the paperwork while in Pennsylvania steel country on Saturday, but the signing location has not yet been decided, according to two people familiar with the location discussion.
Cohn’s effort to organise the meeting unfolded on Monday as Republicans in Congress began an extraordinary public campaign to halt the tariffs. Cohn and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill are worried about repercussions, including a trade war.
Also expected to attend the White House meeting are Chief of Staff John Kelly, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and trade adviser Peter Navarro.
The president has vowed that he would press forward on his tariff plan, even as House Speaker Paul Ryan warned against it.
“No, we’re not backing down,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday (AEDT), less than an hour after a spokeswoman for Ryan said the top House Republican was urging the president not to advance with the tariffs.
“We are extremely worried about the consequences of a trade war,” Ryan aide AshLee Strong said in a statement.
The president’s concerns may be more immediate as he looks at strategies for helping Republicans win House seats in 2018. His trip to southwestern Pennsylvania on Saturday will be a few days before a special election in the heart of steel country.
Republican Rick Saccone, who is seeking to fill the seat of fellow Republican Tim Murphy – who resigned in October after revelations he suggested that his mistress seek an abortion – has struggled against Democratic challenger Connor Lamb.
A poll from Emerson College this week was the first to show Lamb with a lead in the race, giving him a 48-to-45 per cent advantage. Trump won the Pennsylvania district by 20 points in 2016, and a Republican loss there could portend a wave election in November that would put Democrats in control of the House of Representatives.
The Pennsylvania district includes some 17,000 voters who are either steelworkers or related to them, the AFL-CIO told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
But Trump’s political calculus risks being shortsighted if the tariffs prompt a trade war that slows economic growth or results in American businesses in important districts and states being targeted.
Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle maker based in Wisconsin, Ryan’s home state, is facing threats of retaliation from Europe over the steel and aluminum tariffs. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the EU may target imports of the company’s motorcycles as well as Kentucky bourbon and Levi Strauss jeans.
Harley-Davidson already is being hit by a deepening slump in American motorcycle demand, which has forced job cuts and a plant closure at the Milwaukee-based company.
Trump wants to protect industries that are “the backbone of this country” and to “make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect American workers”, said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Separately, Trump tweeted that he hoped to use the tariffs as leverage to renegotiate trade deals, including NAFTA, that remain unpopular in much of the Rust Belt.
“Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum will only come off if new & fair NAFTA agreement is signed,” he tweeted.