The move was widely expected to set off a trade battle that Trump insists the US can win — but which even some of his closest advisers worry could seriously damage a growing American economy.
“Looking forward to 3:30 P.M. meeting today at the White House,” Trump wrote in a morning tweet. “We have to protect & build our Steel and Aluminum Industries while at the same time showing great flexibility and cooperation toward those that are real friends and treat us fairly on both trade and the military.”
It wasn’t yet clear what Trump was prepared to sign during the afternoon event. Advisers have been scrambling since last week to finalize details on steel and aluminum tariffs after Trump announced he would impose them during a meeting with industry executives.
Multiple senior administration officials familiar with the planning said Trump is expected to sign something on Thursday afternoon — but what exactly that is remains in question, since it’s not clear the actual tariff order will be completed and legally ready.
The President could sign a symbolic memo or proclamation declaring his intent to take action on steel tariffs. Or he could sign a more substantial order if the vetting is completed. One official said Thursday morning “it looks like we will have the real deal.”
Trump’s Twitter message, promising “great flexibility and cooperation” with US allies, signaled the President is willing to exclude some countries from the tariffs for national security reasons, despite his initial insistence that no exclusions would apply. The actual language for exclusions will be subject to legal scrutiny.
An administration official said the final order would include a built-in mechanism to allow the President to exclude certain countries, but wouldn’t itself include specific country exclusions. That would allow the administration to ultimately exclude Canada, Mexico and perhaps other countries from the steel and aluminum tariffs.
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said in a television interview on Wednesday that Canada and Mexico would be excluded for now as negotiations continue on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Navarro said tariffs for other countries’ steel and aluminum would go into effect in 15 to 30 days.
The scramble over the tariffs has propelled the White House into further disarray over the past week. Trump’s surprise announcement has already spooked markets, prompted the resignation of his top economist Gary Cohn, and caused a rift with his closest allies on Capitol Hill, including House Speaker Paul Ryan.
On Wednesday and Thursday, aides described rapid-pace scheduling changes as Trump applied pressure on his staff to finish writing the tariff order.
Initially, aides had planned for a noon event on Thursday before moving the time to 3:30 p.m. ET. Facing persistent questions over the legality of the move, the event was pulled from the schedule and Trump determined he’d ink the measures next week. But on Thursday morning it was back on the schedule and Trump was previewing it himself on Twitter.
Representatives from the steel and aluminum industries have already begun convening in Washington ahead of an announcement. Trump had them flown in hoping to illustrate his move with workers whose production lines and plants might be bolstered.
But even as the afternoon event is being planned, administration officials were continuing to raise concern that excluding Canada and Mexico from the steel tariffs — something Trump himself raised as a way to gain leverage in ongoing NAFTA negotiations — could undercut the legal arguments for the tariffs themselves.
Trump’s advisers insist the tariffs are necessary for national security and are using that argument as the legal basis for them. But NAFTA is unrelated to national security, and excluding Canada and Mexico for that reason could prompt legal challenges at the World Trade Organization.
The conundrum is one of the items causing a delay in the signing, the officials said.
Trump has been frustrated by the delay, the officials say. He has insisted he be able to tout a completed tariffs plan when he campaigns for a Republican congressional candidate in Pennsylvania steel country on Saturday.
Meanwhile, major US allies hadn’t yet been informed as of Thursday morning of final details on the tariff plan, including whether their steel exports will be subject to tariffs.
“Nothing,” one western diplomat said when asked whether final word had yet come from the White House.
Top Republican lawmakers and the leaders from major US trading partners have resisted the tariffs plan. More the 100 GOP members of Congress wrote Trump on Wednesday urging him to “reconsider the idea of broad tariffs to avoid unintended negative consequences.”
The European Union on Wednesday detailed a list of US-made goods that it would subject to reciprocal tariffs if Trump follows through with his plan. China also indicated it was preparing an appropriate response.
Trump has declared that trade wars are “easy to win” and campaigned on the promise to renew American industries by slapping barriers on trade from other countries.