Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, struggled to find words to describe his state of mind after hearing Thursday that President Donald Trump would impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.
“This is not going to go down well in farm country,” Roberts said.
He said he and other Republican senators received no formal heads-up from the White House before Trump said he would impose import tariffs — 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum — in a bid to boost U.S. manufacturers.
“What’s really ironic here — it’s a real paradox of irony — that we have a tax reform package that’s bringing a lot of benefits to the business community not the mention individuals, and this is a policy move that is contrary to that,” Roberts said.
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“I hope we’re not seeing a trade policy that will basically result in all the benefits of the tax reform being taken away by higher manufacturing costs being passed on to consumers. The consumers are going to pay for this. All manufacturers are going to be affected by this, and they’re not going to pay for it. They’re going to pass that cost onto consumers, so it’s a consumer tax, not a tariff.”
Roberts said he and other Republicans from farming states and from the Senate Finance Committee had lobbied Trump hard to try to convince him that raising tariffs would blow back badly on the very rural and middle-class voters who supported his election in 2016.
“These are the people who voted for the president,” Roberts said. “These are his people. One county in Kansas even voted for him 90 percent, and they’re not going to be happy at all about this.”
Roberts is beginning to wonder if the president is at all persuadable on trade. He fears that despite speaking repeatedly with free-trade Republicans, Trump is committed to following the protectionist policy advice of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Trump adviser Peter Navarro.
“We’re very concerned about it,” Roberts said. “This is not what I would call a trade policy that is predictable and helpful to agriculture at this time, when we need any sale that we can get. I think every farm organization, every commodity group, every manufacturer involved has already weighed in.”
Roberts said he’s met with Trump repeatedly on trade, to little avail.
“We brought several folks from the agriculture committee and those who represent rural areas in to see him, and then we had the entire finance committee Republicans, of which there wasn’t one person who raised their hand in favor of this kind of policy,” Roberts said.
“I don’t know what term to put on it, but it’s not good,” he said. “… I think the president has a sort of ingrained policy here. He’s made a lot of campaign speeches talking bout this. But you can use the western terminology: You can ride hell to leather into a box canyon if you want to but you gotta turn around sometime.”
Making Thursday’s announcement by Trump even more painful was the knowledge that some Democrats were celebrating.
“It isn’t like the dog didn’t bark,” Roberts said. “I think everybody that has visited with the president made a good case and gave very specific examples of how this type of protectionism is very counterproductive to farm country. I think everybody’s heard this. I don’t know any Republican senators who are for this.”