Whether the Commerce Department took the president's lead in recommending tariffs on all imported automobiles is unclear. But such a move would face resistance in the West Wing. "There's not a whole lot of support for auto tariffs," a senior administration official told CNBC. "But only one person's opinion matters."
In July 2018, President Trump called on Twitter for tariffs of 20 percent on foreign automobiles, and in November upped the suggestion to 25 percent following news of layoffs at General Motors.
Business groups are already warning of the economic impacts. A new study by the Center for Automotive Research found a 25 percent tariff on autos and parts would increase the price of a car by an average of $2,750 and as many as 366,900 U.S. jobs would be lost. Its analysis factors in exclusions for South Korea and assumes Canada and Mexico would also be exempt under the yet-to-be-passed U.S. Mexico Canada trade agreement.
Pro-free-trade Republicans are building new tools to push back, in case the president implements new tariffs in the name of national security.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) introduced a bill last month that would give Congress sixty days to approve any proposed tariffs under section 232. It would also apply retroactively to steel and aluminium tariffs, giving Congress 75 days to pass a resolution to approve those tariffs.
Sen. Toomey says he has heard from dozens of Pennsylvania companies who use steel and aluminium products who have been hurt by the increased cost of materials. "We have seen this administration use this tool in a way that was never intended," said Toomey.
Sen. Robert Portman (R-OH) also has a proposal to address what he sees as the misuse of national security in trade fights. Under his proposal, the Pentagon would make the primary determination that a tariff is needed, not the Commerce Department. And Congress would have the right to disapprove of those measures.