Republicans Bark at Trump’s Trade Approach, but Barely Bite

Trade policy—something that had united Republicans for decades—has become exasperating to many on Capitol Hill who dread fighting these battles with a Republican president.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Even as Republicans on Capitol Hill bristle at President Donald Trump’s approach to trade policy, lawmakers have been carefully picking their battles ahead of the midterm elections, fearful of an aggressive response from the leader of their own party.

While Republicans have yet to do much more than tweet their objections to the president’s new tariffs, they’ve taken a harder line on a key component of his recent trade agreement with China, and appear set to vote overwhelmingly to reverse a key component of that deal.

That dichotomy was not lost on GOP senators, some of whom questioned the calculations of their leaders in deciding which fight to pick with Trump and suggested that both are family feuds worth having.

“That’s a garbage argument,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who is co-sponsoring an effort aimed at handicapping the Trump administration’s power to impose tariffs, said in an interview. “We ought to take it up. We really, desperately need to take it up.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who is leading that legislative push on tariffs, also addressed those concerns about reining in presidential power so close to an election season, telling reporters: “I don’t know how [Trump] could possibly feel undermined talking to other folks about tariffs” when he has said he wants to ask Congress to have a say in any nuclear deal he might reach with North Korea.

Neither Flake nor Corker is running for re-election this fall, so there’s less Trump can do to punish them for pushing the legislation, which was effectively halted by a procedural snag on Monday. While Corker was confident that he could move past that issue, Senate Republican leaders—who control which measures are taken up on the floor—have expressed alarm at the idea of picking a fight with the Twitter-happy president so close to the midterm elections.

But Congress hasn’t been completely paralyzed in taking action to respond to the president’s new policies.

Lawmakers dealt a major setback to the Trump administration by paving the way for a measure that effectively blocks the administration from unilaterally lifting the Commerce Department’s penalties on ZTE, the Chinese telecommunications firm that evaded U.S. sanctions. According to U.S. intelligence officials, ZTE poses serious national security and cyber espionage concerns.

“By the way, is that not pushing back on presidential action?” Corker quipped.

Corker said “some” are concerned that Trump would “take out his wrath, if something like this were to pass, on Republican senators. They’ve stated that, haven’t they?” The senator was referring to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn’s (R-TX) argument that picking a tariffs fight with the president so close to the midterm elections was unnecessary.

“To me, that’s basically abdicating your responsibilities as a senator,” Corker added. “If you gave truth serum to the majority of senators on our side of the aisle, they would intellectually support what I’m doing. I think the political piece makes it a little more difficult.”

Corker’s legislation came after a months-long lobbying campaign from congressional Republicans aimed at preventing Trump from following through on tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. His bill would require congressional approval if any president, not just Trump, cites national security reasons to impose tariffs. Trump has been citing Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 in justifying the tariffs. That provision allows the president to impose tariffs on imports that might threaten national security. But lawmakers say Trump is abusing that authority and simply using it to go around Congress.

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The disagreements over trade policy—something that had united Republican for decades—are flat-out exasperating to many on Capitol Hill who wish that they did not have to fight these battles with a Republican president. Politically, it’s likely safer for Republicans to reverse the ZTE decision than to mess with the new tariffs.

“There’s a stronger mistrust toward China, and the President never campaigned on helping ZTE while he did campaign on garbage protectionist trade policies,” a senior GOP aide, granted anonymity to candidly discuss internal deliberations, told The Daily Beast. “But Sen. Corker’s frustration is not unjustified. Both of these fights are insanely stupid and the result of an administration that has no direction or ideology.”

Behind the scenes, Trump has been calling senators involved in Corker’s effort and has attempted to convince them to back off. Though his overtures have been rebuffed, he is making his case directly to GOP lawmakers, some of whom met with Trump at the White House last week to hear him out. One of those participants, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), said in an interview that Trump “energetically” made the case that new tariffs give him “significant leverage” in pushing U.S. allies to scrap their trade barriers.

“If our trading partners reduce or eliminate their tariffs, that would be a good outcome,” Cruz told The Daily Beast. “I’m hopeful that the administration will follow through on what the president said, and focus on lowering tariffs, expanding American access to foreign markets, and increasing international trade.”

Others aren’t so convinced.

“If I had any confidence that we would get to a place that’s closer to what we want by letting the president negotiate, then I’d feel differently,” Flake told The Daily Beast. “But the president has been consistent on one thing, and it’s protectionism. And using national security as justification is just wrong.”

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), Corker’s lead Republican counterpart, said Trump called him from Singapore, where he is meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to discuss denuclearization. The president’s shadow lobbying effort underscores his fear that Republicans will move to restrict his authority to carry out his deeply held and long-standing beliefs in protectionism. Toomey ultimately decided to move forward with the legislation.

“The Senate is a co-equal branch of government, and we need to do what we think is right,” Toomey (R-PA) told The Daily Beast.

In March, when Trump first announced a series of tariffs, Republicans on both sides of the Capitol said they would try to steer the president away from executive actions that hurt U.S. allies, arguing at the time that a legislative remedy wasn’t yet necessary. But just a few months later, Trump decided to follow through with those tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada, Mexico and the European Union. And over the weekend, after picking a fight with U.S. allies at the G7 summit in Canada, the president threatened new tariffs on automobile imports.

Around the same time, the Trump administration was engaged in intense trade negotiations with China. As part of a deal struck earlier this month with Beijing, the U.S. plans to lift a Commerce Department ban on ZTE that was imposed just a few months ago. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Monday briefed senators on that agreement, which would also require ZTE to pay a fine of around $1.4 billion.

But lawmakers indicated after the briefing that they were still uncomfortable with allowing ZTE to operate in the U.S. given its history—and as such, they agreed to include an amendment introduced by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) that would reinstate those penalties against ZTE.

“I can’t speak for 99 senators, but they couldn’t satisfy me,” Cotton said after attending the briefing with Ross. “[ZTE is] a repeat bad actor. They should be put out of business.”