President Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross seemed at odds Thursday over China’s role in hurting the domestic U.S. steel industry.
Mr. Trump told reporters that his order for an investigation into steel “dumping” by foreign competitors wasn’t aimed at China, whose help he is seeking to curb North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program.
“This has nothing to do with China,” Mr. Trump said. “This has to do with worldwide, what’s happening. The dumping problem is a worldwide problem.”
But an hour earlier, Mr. Ross told reporters at the White House that China is a big part of the problem.
“Steel imports … have continued to rise, despite repeated Chinese claims that they were going to reduce their steel capacity, when instead they have actually been increasing it consistently,” Mr. Ross said. “In the first couple months of this year alone, steel imports rose 19.6 percent … and are now more than 26 percent of the entire U.S. marketplace. So it’s a very serious impact on the domestic industry.”
Acknowledging he was diverging from his prepared remarks, Mr. Trump also spoke out strongly against Canada’s actions under the North American Free Trade Agreement, referring to his trip to Wisconsin on Tuesday.
“What they’ve done to our dairy farm workers is a disgrace. It’s a disgrace,” Mr. Trump said, adding that it was a result of the NAFTA deal that has been “a disaster for our country.”
“We’ll be reporting back some time over the next two weeks as to NAFTA and what we’re going to do about it,” the president said.
The Trump administration launched the investigation into steel dumping by citing the potential impact on national security if domestic steel producers are harmed. Mr. Ross said his department’s wide-ranging investigation will focus on a recent rise in foreign steel imports, and specifically called out China for attention.
The tough talk about Chinese steel comes as Mr. Trump is seeking China’s help in pressuring North Korea to scale back its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development, including a failed missile launch last weekend. Mr. Trump announced last week that his administration would not label China as a currency manipulator, after promising to do just that during his campaign.
Mr. Ross said currency manipulation has nothing to do with the question of steel exports.
“Currency is a totally different issue,” he said. “Steel is an important factor in our infrastructure as it relates to national defense. We have to make our decision based on what’s important to the United States and our security. The important question is protecting our defense needs.”
Officials said the move supports Mr. Trump’s campaign pledge to clamp down on foreign steel dumping on the U.S. market that has undercut jobs.
Under a 1962 trade law, the administration has the authority to assess the domestic production needed for projected national defense requirements, the domestic industry’s capacity to meet those requirements, and the “close relation of national economic welfare to U.S. national security.”
Recent reports by the U.S. International Trade Commission have found that the domestic steel industry is injured by foreign imports, including harm from nations that export steel to U.S. and unfairly subsidize those products or sell them at an artificially low price.
Mr. Trump signed an executive memorandum in the Oval Office Thursday morning to formally initiate the investigation. By law, the Commerce Department investigation must be concluded and the report submitted within 270 days. Mr. Ross said he expects the report to be completed much sooner.
Alliance for American Manufacturing President Scott Paul said the so-called “Section 232” trade action will “safeguard our domestic steel industry’s ability to protect our national security.”
“China’s overcapacity in a variety of industrial sectors, coupled with its persistent unfair trade practices, put American jobs and industry at risk,” Mr. Paul said in a statement. “That’s what makes this Section 232 investigation so important: it’s an underutilized tool that should be deployed in defense of the domestic steel industry and its workers.”