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Trump signs tariffs to end 'assault' on American workers

030818 SWestwood trump signs tariffs pic
"This is not merely an economic disaster, but it's a security disaster," Trump said. "We want to build our ships, we want to build our planes, we want to build our military equipment with steel, with aluminum, from our country." (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Trump signs a proclamation creating steel and aluminum tariffs on Thursday, arguing he is "defending America's national security" by taxing imports of the metals.

"We have to protect and build our steel and aluminum industries," Trump said during a signing ceremony at the White House.

"This is not merely an economic disaster, but it's a security disaster," Trump said. "We want to build our ships, we want to build our planes, we want to build our military equipment with steel, with aluminum, from our country."

Trump encouraged foreign steel and aluminum producers to move their plants to the U.S. to make their metals if they wish to avoid his tariffs, noting the recent tax legislation he signed would also benefit their business if they invested in the U.S. He said unfair trade practices, such as subsidizing metal production and then dumping excess steel in the U.S. and other countries, has amounted to an "assault" on American workers.

"This is only the first stop," Trump added. "The actions we're taking today are not by choice, but by necessity."

Trump's proclamation will apply a 25 percent tariff to most steel imports and a 10 percent tariff to most aluminum imports.

"If the same goals can be accomplished by other means, America will remain open to modifying or removing the tariffs for other countries," Trump said.

The tariffs will take effect in 15 days, senior administration officials said. Countries will have the opportunity to earn exemptions if they agree to trade or security concessions that the administration will consider on a case-by-case basis, the White House has said.

The president said his administration would look "very strongly" at the defense ties between the U.S. and countries facing the prospect of tariffs in the next two weeks.

Canada and Mexico will both have exemptions from the duties on the condition that they renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to Trump's liking. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Trump on Monday to voice his staunch opposition to the trade proposal, and Mexican leaders warned Trump against linking NAFTA talks to the steel and aluminum tariffs.

"We're going to hold off on the tariff on those two countries" as NAFTA negotiations continue, Trump said, threatening to terminate the decades-old trade pact if Canada and Mexico decline to rework the deal.

World leaders and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have spent the past week cautioning Trump against applying the duties blindly, arguing he could risk causing a trade war if countries retaliate against American industries by slapping tariffs on other products they import from the U.S.

White House aides scrambled to finalize Trump's trade policy after the president announced it unexpectedly during a public meeting with steel and aluminum executives last week. As recently as Thursday morning, many officials did not know the details of how or when Trump would sign the tariff proclamation given the uncertainty and confusion that has surrounded the process.

Trump cited Australia earlier Thursday as an example of a country whose trade and security relationship with the U.S. may earn it an exemption from the punishing tariffs. The president also noted he would reserve the authority to raise or lower the rates of his duties based on the circumstances of individual trading relationships, providing the "flexibility" he had teased in a tweet Thursday morning.

Republicans had urged Trump to consider a more nuanced approach to the tariffs that spared U.S. allies from measures that could put a strain on their ties to Washington. Many lawmakers warned the trade tensions could escalate quickly if countries began to take retaliatory steps against industries that employ many more American workers than the steel and aluminum production sectors.

Since the early days of his presidential campaign, Trump has bemoaned past decisions that led to the loss of so many American manufacturing jobs. He threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major multilateral trade pact struck during the Obama administration, to tear up NAFTA and to go after China for activities like intellectual property theft and currency manipulation.

But while Trump pulled out of TPP soon after taking office, he had put off many of the other aggressive trade measures as he adjusted to the realities of governing.

Free trade advocates within the administration — particularly outgoing National Economic Council Chairman Gary Cohn — had spent months attempting to persuade Trump not to impose tariffs

"American companies have not been treated fairly," Trump said. "And some American companies have taken advantage of it, frankly, by going to other countries."

"I think companies are going to be very happy, in the end," he added.