White House Scrambles As Trump Pushes For Trade Action

(CNN) — President Donald Trump is eager to announce protectionist measures on Thursday to buffer the US steel and aluminum industries from foreign imports. But the policy he wants to roll out isn’t ready yet, two White House officials said.

The President told aides on Wednesday to lay the groundwork for him to announce new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports the next day, sending them scrambling to determine what specific policy he could announce and others racing to contact executives and union representatives from the industry to attend the announcement at the White House, multiple sources said.

But rather than an announcement, the White House added a last-minute closed event with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and steel and aluminum industry representatives at the White House on Thursday morning.

Some of the aides who have been crafting the policy were caught off guard by the plans for an announcement, which The Washington Post first reported Wednesday night.

Earlier on Wednesday, lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office and the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel made clear to policy staffers that they needed more time — perhaps several more weeks — to turn the Commerce Department’s recommendations into a proclamation that would impose the tariffs Trump has sought to levy on steel and aluminum imports.

“Maybe he wants to make an announcement, but the proclamation isn’t ready,” one White House official said. “Without the proclamation, nothing has legal force.”

As of mid-morning on Thursday, a White House official said there were no firm plans for an announcement and one White House official said the discussion was going “back and forth” on whether an announcement was feasible.

The President, meanwhile, continued to press on via Twitter: “Our Steel and Aluminum industries (and many others) have been decimated by decades of unfair trade and bad policy with countries from around the world. We must not let our country, companies and workers be taken advantage of any longer. We want free, fair and SMART TRADE!”

It wasn’t immediately clear what sparked Trump’s sudden desire to make the policy announcement within 24 hours, but his directive for a next-day announcement came as the White House was engulfed in its latest string of negative headlines.

On Wednesday alone, one of Trump’s longest-serving aides Hope Hicks announced her resignation, his son-in-law Jared Kushner was the subject of several stories raising questions about his foreign and business entanglements and infighting within the West Wing once again seized the spotlight.

The tariff announcement would have served as a mild reprieve, sparking off a debate about the merits of a policy that is likely to invite retaliation from other countries.

The mad scramble Trump set off on Wednesday was just the latest chaotic chapter in the chaotic policy-making on trade issues that has defined the Trump administration.

Trade policy, and the debate over steel and aluminum measures in particular, has been the subject of bitter infighting within the Trump administration.

The question of whether to impose the protectionist measures Trump has long favored on steel and aluminum set off a bitter debate between warring factions inside the White House. The debate pitted the National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis against the proponents of protectionist trade policies, namely Ross, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and trade adviser Peter Navarro.

But in recent weeks it became obvious that Trump was sticking with his original instincts and readying a decision to impose tariffs or quotas on steel and aluminum imports.

The departure of Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary who had sought to play a leadership role in trade policy by organizing a weekly meeting on the issue, helped speed up the process to ready the protectionist measures as Lighthizer took over the process, one White House official said.

The opposition to the measure was twofold, with the President’s economic advisers arguing that the protectionist measures would lead to damaging retaliation from other countries and unsettle global markets. The President’s national security and defense advisers warned about harmful impacts on steel-producing US allies.

It appeared likely Trump would grant some exemptions as he moved to impose trade duties on the steel and aluminum imports — but as of Thursday morning, nothing was certain.

The-CNN-Wire