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Trump says US will institute tariffs on steel and aluminum imports next week

  • Trump announces the U.S. will institute steel and aluminum tariffs next week.
  • Trump's top advisors disagreed over whether to crack down on imports.
  • A move would be part of Trump's broader push for protectionist policies.

The United States will impose new tariffs on steel and aluminum as early as next week, President Donald Trump said Thursday, following disagreement among his advisors about whether to crack down on imports.

The U.S. will set tariffs of 25 percent for steel and 10 percent for aluminum, the president said. It will apply the tariffs broadly, without targeting specific countries, and not impose quotas.

"People have no idea how badly our country has been treated by other countries. By people representing us who didn't have a clue," Trump said, arguing that trade trends "destroyed" American steel and aluminum industries.

Trump made the announcement as steel and aluminum executives, who back the tariffs, met with administration officials at the White House on Thursday. Confusion surrounded Trump's announcement as the administration struggled to agree on how to proceed.

"It's a mess," a White House aide told CNBC earlier in the day about the process.

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with steel and aluminum executives in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Thursday, March 1, 2018, in Washington. From left, Roger Newport of AK Steel, John Ferriola of Nucor, Trump, Dave Burritt of U.S. Steel Corporation, and Tim Timkin of Timken Steel.
Evan Vucci | AP
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with steel and aluminum executives in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Thursday, March 1, 2018, in Washington. From left, Roger Newport of AK Steel, John Ferriola of Nucor, Trump, Dave Burritt of U.S. Steel Corporation, and Tim Timkin of Timken Steel.

Tariffs on the metals mark another step in the ongoing push for protectionist policies that helped Trump win the White House. The president has repeatedly thrashed free-trade deals struck by his predecessors, arguing they hurt American workers, and has pledged to make trade more fair to the United States.

The president's actions have also sparked concerns about higher prices for consumers or retaliation from other countries that could harm the U.S. economy. As reports indicated Trump could move forward with tariffs, European Union and Chinese officials considered retaliating by targeting American products with political significance.

Officials could take actions related to items such as Harley-Davidson motorcycles, bourbon or agricultural products. Retaliation from China, America's largest trade partner, could hit the U.S. economy particularly hard.

The tariff issue has pitted globalist elements of the White House, such as chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, against more protectionist voices, such as trade advisor Peter Navarro. The chaos around the announcement Thursday reflects an ongoing disagreement between the Cohn wing and trade hawks such as Navarro, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. Last month, the Commerce Department recommended putting heavy tariffs or quotas on foreign producers of the metals.

During the meeting, Cohn argued against the tariffs, saying they would raise the price of steel and aluminum products, a person in the room told CNBC. Trump responded by calling it "a small price to pay."

The president also argued against quotas, saying countries would "cheat," the person said. He also contended that exemptions for certain countries would not work.

Mike Bless, CEO of Century Aluminum, told CNBC that a "spirited debate" took place in the meeting about the merits of the tariffs.

Ultimately, Trump decided to make an informal announcement even as his advisors disagreed on a path forward. Steel stocks rose amid reports that Trump would institute tariffs, but the broader market fell, apparently amid concerns about the effects of Trump's move.

On Thursday, Trump told industry representatives they will have "protection for the first time in a while."

"When it comes to a time when our country can't make aluminum and steel ... you almost don't have much of a country. Because without steel and aluminum, your country's not the same," Trump said.

During the meeting, Trump invited executives to speak to show the industry's support for tariffs.

"We know when it's completely unfair. We are not protectionists. We want a level playing field. It's for our employees, to support our customers," said Dave Burritt, chief executive of U.S. Steel.

John Ferriola, CEO of Nucor, said the industry counts on the Trump administration to create "a level playing field to compete."

Already this year, the administration put tariffs on imported solar cells and certain washing machines.

Here are the industry representatives who attended the White House meeting Thursday:

John Brett of ArcelorMittal

Dave Burritt of U.S. Steel

John Ferriola of Nucor

Conrad Winkler of Evraz

Lee McCarter of JW Aluminum

Mike Bless of Century Aluminum

Roger Newport of AK Steel

Chester Roush of JW Aluminum

Tim Timken, TimkenSteel

John Bass of Nucor

Jesse Gary of Century Aluminum

John Lapides of United Aluminum

Beth Ludwig of AK Steel

Marcia Miller of ArcelorMittal

Ryan Stenger of TimkenSteel

Todd Young of U.S. Steel

— CNBC's Kayla Tausche contributed to this report

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