WASHINGTON—The Trump administration on Thursday touted its truce with Europe to nervous lawmakers as evidence that its trade policies are starting to show results, but Republicans pushed the administration to accelerate efforts to find similar solutions on other trade fronts.
President Trump flew to the agricultural and industrial Midwest Thursday to highlight what he said are the emerging successes from his hardball trade tactics, such as reopened steel mills protected by tariffs and European pledges to buy crops recently shut out of China, part of an accord reached on Wednesday with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Mr. Trump’s aides said his threats were also starting to show results in the form of newly active negotiations from North America to Asia to Africa. They said that has raised the prospect of new trade gains amid the pain already felt in the U.S. from higher import prices and from exports lost due to retaliation by trading partners.
“This is a real vindication that the president’s trade policy is starting to work,” Commerce Secretary
told reporters as he traveled with Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump, he said, hopes to push for a global reduction in trade barriers, “but to get there, we had to take a route of trying to make it more painful for the other parties to continue bad practices.”
Back in Washington, Trump advisers got an earful from angry lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who blasted the administration’s approach, criticized the Europe pact as weak, demanded faster relief for ailing constituents and pledged to ramp up efforts to tie Mr. Trump’s hands in shaping trade policy going forward.
“There was a lot of pushback on the strategy,” said Rep. Andy Barr (R., Ky.), following a closed meeting between House Republicans and two administration officials—Lawrence Kudlow, head of the National Economic Council, and
a White House trade adviser. Mr. Barr is one of 24 GOP representatives whose re-election this November is rated a toss-up by the Cook Political Report, and he complained that bourbon makers in his district were being hurt by European retaliation for U.S. steel tariffs. “We want to know when we’re going to get a solution.”
With Republicans growing increasingly worried about losing control of the House this fall, fears aggravated by polls showing the unpopularity of Trump trade policies, Rep. Bill Huizenga (R., Mich.) read aloud to the White House advisers a text from a tool-and-die maker in his district who was facing higher raw-material costs because of the aluminum and steel tariffs. “I was making sure that they heard the message that this is not just uncomfortable—it’s painful and it’s damaging,” Mr. Huizenga later told reporters. He said that because his district also includes farmers, who are getting squeezed by the retaliatory tariffs, “we’re getting it coming and going in western Michigan.”
Many of the lawmakers said the GOP-led Congress should keep alive the prospect of legislation to curb Mr. Trump’s ability to impose tariffs on the table, even after the apparent thaw in relations between the U.S. and EU. Senate Finance Committee Chairman
(R., Utah) indicated that he wasn’t ready to drop his threat to advance such a measure, which Republicans on his panel have been discussing for weeks, saying, “We’re still going with that.”
In the Europe statement, Mr. Trump and Mr. Juncker agreed to launch trade talks that would seek to eliminate tariffs, non-tariff barriers and subsidies on industrial goods, and would suspend Mr. Trump’s threat of auto tariffs as long as those negotiators were continuing. The two sides also agreed to try to reach an agreement to lift U.S. tariffs on European steel and aluminum and European tariffs imposed in retaliation, though they didn’t give a timetable for doing so.
As part of their campaign to reassure anxious lawmakers, Trump officials said they were moving to follow the European announcement with more trade deals. U.S. Trade Representative
told a Senate hearing Thursday morning that “we are close to beginning negotiations” with a number of countries, citing the Philippines and sub-Saharan Africa as specific prospects.
He said he was also optimistic about striking a deal soon to modernize North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, and followed his Senate appearance with meetings with his visiting Mexican counterpart to accelerate the process. “I think we’re close to the point where we’re going to have that finished,” Mr. Lighthizer said.
While the Trump team now seems in a rush to show progress in improving relations with a roster of trading partners, officials indicated they didn’t anticipate any quick fixes in their expanding battle with China. In fact, they suggested their motivation for striking deals with Europe and others was an attempt to line up allies in their standoff with Beijing.
“China is going to be a longer-term problem,” Mr. Lighthizer told lawmakers. The Trump administration has already imposed tariffs on $34 billion in Chinese imports, prompting equivalent retaliation from China, and the U.S. has proposed duties on more than $200 billion in additional imports.
Asked what he considered the most important part of the Europe agreement, Mr. Kudlow told Fox News that “No. 1: the United States and the EU will be allied in the fight against China…. President Juncker made it very clear yesterday that he intended to help us.”
Mr. Trump’s trip to the Midwest had him visiting a region that was crucial to his 2016 election victory, but where polls show his popularity slumping ahead of this year’s election. In Granite City, Ill., he held a rally at a steel factory that recently restarted long-idled blast furnaces, a move the company has attributed to the higher prices made possible by the metals tariffs.
A series of workers and managers came up and personally thanked Mr. Trump for helping get their jobs back.
In his visit to the Midwest, Mr. Trump also suggested a link between his agreement with Europe and his desire to keep a GOP majority in Congress this fall, saying his actions were designed to help farmers, who might otherwise vote for Democrats in the fall. But Mr. Trump, in that speech, and one earlier in the day in Iowa, appeared to exaggerate the extent that the Europe deal would help farmers, as sharply different explanations from Washington and Brussels emerged over just the breadth of agricultural talks.
“We just opened up Europe for you farmers,” Mr. Trump said in Iowa. And Mr. Lighthizer told Congress that “our view is that we are negotiating about agriculture, period. That’s part of the process.”
But the joint statement between the sides makes no mention of covering agriculture beyond a pledge to buy more soybeans, nor any promises to discuss addressing European agriculture tariffs and subsidies—a major source of trade tensions with the U.S. European officials said they had successfully rebuffed such a demand, making clear that no broader agricultural talks would be held. Officials on both sides said Europe also agreed to revive an old, unfilled pledge to buy more American beef.
The U.S. “heavily insisted to insert the whole field of agricultural products—we refused that because I don’t have a mandate and that’s a very sensitive issue in Europe,” Mr. Juncker told reporters after his joint announcement with Mr. Trump.
And while European officials did vow to try and buy more soybeans—to help offset American sales lost as a result of Chinese retaliation against the U.S.—they said that was really an affirmation of market forces, as prices for U.S. crops tumble, rather than a promise to buy a quota.
“We are not going to turn into some kind of a Soviet-style economy,” one said. “Market rules will remain in place.”
and Natalie Andrews contributed to this article.
Appeared in the July 27, 2018, print edition as ‘Trump Tries to Ease GOP Trade Worries.’