In late summer, the Commerce Department and the U.S. Trade Representative submitted a report to the White House that contained a “menu of options,” according to one trade official who had seen the document. White House officials — among them, NEC director Gary Cohn and then-strategist Steve Bannon, for instance — wrestled with widely varying viewpoints and could not agree on a course of action, according to two senior administration officials and an outside advisor close to the White House.
When Secretary Ross briefed lawmakers on the progress of the investigations into steel and aluminum in July, he said a final decision was on hold because of the “legislative calendar,” three attendees told CNBC. At the time, the White House was still pushing the Senate to pass the Better Care health care plan.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) described the briefing in a podcast with the Alliance for American Manufacturing. “The president doesn’t seem to think we can do two things at once, that we could do health care and this,” Brown said, referencing the fears the steel investigation could “cost some [Republican] votes.”
Brown feared waiting until after tax reform efforts to unveil an announcement would delay the decision “basically forever,” concluding the industry would have been better off if the White House “hadn’t even brought it up.”
The White House plans to announce the result of its 232 investigation before the President goes to China in November, according to two senior administration officials and a lobbyist briefed on the plan. A further delay on a tariff announcement would not only keep congressional frustration at bay, officials say it would also arm the US with economic leverage when approaching conversations of national security — issues that prior Administrations have sought to de-link.
“At various times, the president has indicated he’s willing to pull his punches on trade issues if it serves a broader interest,” said Ambassador Michael Froman, U.S. Trade Representative for the Obama administration and chief negotiator on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
It’s unclear how the so-called softening would play out as the U.S. renegotiates NAFTA. Public comments from Lighthizer and the president himself have taken a harsher tone. Trump, in the weeks that followed, suggested no fewer than four times that the U.S. would, in fact, withdraw from the agreement.
Even so, USTR officials in private offer a measured approach. A USTR official said before the first round of negotiations that the US would draw from previously ditched trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, if it was deemed the “best text out there.”
“The president continues to say what he said on the campaign,” said Cindy Braddon, president of Braddon Group, which has engaged with the White House and Congress on trade issues. “But the staff is more transparent with their consultations with Congress.”