Republicans in Congress Try to Gently Dissuade Trump from Tariffs

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 13:  U.S. President Donald Trump (L) speaks as Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) (2nd L) listens during a meeting with congressional members in the Cabinet Room of the White House February 13, 2018 in Washington, DC. President Trump held a meeting with congressional members to discuss trade.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks as Rep. Kevin Brady listens during a meeting with congressional members in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Texas Rep. Kevin Brady is a professional. And it takes professional determination to praise the president, with a straight face, for taking an action his party considers cataclysmic and that he, personally, is desperately trying to block.

“I applaud the president for going after unfairly traded products, steel and aluminum,” Brady, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters Monday afternoon. “He should do exactly that.”

It was then that Brady introduced a word he must have said dozens of times over the next ten minutes, the word that offers his party the best chance for allowing Trump to back down from the plan he abruptly announced last week to impose broad tariffs on imported steel and aluminum regardless of the country of origin.


Gently nudging the president to “tailor” his actions the current course of action among terrified Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Ways and Means Committee members are circulating a letter that “encourages the president to tailor his actions to focus on, and target, unfairly traded products, and to exempt fairly traded products from countries that deal with [the] U.S.,” Brady told reporters. “We think tailoring the tariffs strengthens the president’s hand in a major way and makes sure that American manufacturing workers aren’t caught up in the unintended consequences of a broader tariff action by the president.”

In other words, the strategy is to congratulate Trump on his brilliant idea, but give him some friendly feedback—maybe don’t piss off close allies like Canada, Japan and Germany for no reason—that “strengthens” Trump’s “hand in a major way.”

Brady was also quick to note “the president has not made a final decision yet on the action.”

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott noted that his is a steel-producing state, and he still doesn’t think the tariffs “are a good idea.” That could be because, beyond producing steel, South Carolina is also home to one of the largest German automotive manufacturing plants in the world. And Trump has also threatened European carmakers, after the European Union said it would retaliate in response to the steel tariffs. This is all a big problem for Tim Scott.

“I think you could find a plausible path, so to speak, on a targeted tariff for China,” Scott told reporters.

Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy said he would “keep my powder dry” until he saw a real proposal from the White House on what the administration is planning to do. Maybe, after all, President Trump knew something Kennedy didn’t when he randomly said in a meeting that he would slap metal tariffs on everyone. But Kennedy’s “first preference would be to direct the tariffs to the countries with which we are trading who are cheating, as opposed to those who are playing by the rules.” An interesting proposition.

“But again, I don’t know his reasoning for doing this,” he said. “I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. We may have a national security problem. I don’t know whether we do or we don’t.”

No one wanted to answer questions about whether Congress would consider legislative action to block the president from implementing these tariffs if he doesn’t change his mind. (Note: the president hasn’t changed his mind.)

Brady, when asked about possible legislation, told reporters that “the focus right now ought to be on the actions he takes this week.” Even though there’s strong and rare bipartisan opposition to the president’s proposal, the efforts for now seem contained to convincing the president to back down before trying to pass veto-proof legislation to block him.

“There is zero chance that there is going to be a legislative fix,” North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told reporters. Meadows, a frequent flatterer of Trump’s who intends to stay in the president’s good graces, suggested that the White House’s “tactic” of imposing steep tariffs on everyone differed from his preferred “tactic” of narrowly targeted tariffs on finished goods.

There’s an odd confidence among many members and senators that the president would never actually go through with such an obviously poor decision. But he’s their party’s president, and they have to flatter him into backing down rather than risk provoking him by screaming about how stupid the proposal is. The most honest response I got on Monday was from Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who, now having removed himself from reelection consideration for a second time, no longer has to pretend that Congress is working with a rational counterpart in the Oval Office. When I asked him if he thought the president would back down or “tailor,” Corker despondently shrugged his shoulders.

“I have no idea what he’s gonna do,” he said.