Republican senators were livid Thursday when they learned that the Trump administration might impose even more tariffs on foreign imports—this time, for automobiles. But none were more irate than Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN).
“There’s just no basis whatsoever. And it’s just such a blatant political move. It’s a very dangerous path to go down,” Corker said in an interview. “This whole thing feels like it’s getting out of hand to me. It feels like everything’s becoming transactional.”
The Commerce Department, at President Donald Trump’s direction, launched an investigation on Wednesday night into whether automobile imports threaten U.S. national security. Under section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the executive branch has the authority to impose tariffs on imports it believes could threaten national security. The probe will also focus on “whether the decline of domestic automobile and automotive parts production threatens to weaken the internal economy of the United States,” the department said in a statement.
Republicans and conservatives on Capitol Hill have, both privately and publicly, expressed deep concerns with the president’s approach to trade issues and his propensity to impose tariffs. In March, the administration announced new tariffs on steel and aluminum, kicking off intense bilateral negotiations with other countries on potential new trade deals. The Trump administration has leaned on its national-security authority for exploring and eventually implementing tariffs—something Republicans argue is an outdated provision that only threatens to undermine the economic gains already made under Trump’s watch.
“It’s an abuse of that authority. It’s very blatant. There’s no rational person that can think that we have a national-security issue with auto manufacturing,” said a visibly frustrated Corker. “It’s a dangerous path. Then other countries can claim tariffs on whatever they deem. They just claim it’s a national security issue. So it’s a very dangerous, inappropriate path to go down.”
Corker said he suspects that the decision to open up an investigation had more to do with scoring political points than anything else. He pointed to Trump’s Wednesday morning tweet: “There will be big news coming soon for our great American Autoworkers. After many decades of losing your jobs to other countries, you have waited long enough!”
When asked why he thought the White House publicized the matter, Corker responded, “Hell if I know. It seems like it was for political reasons.”
The senator suggested to The Daily Beast that the move was intended to shore up support among union members heading into the midterm elections—particularly, members of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union. Corker, who is not running for re-election this year, is largely credited with bringing a Volkswagen production facility to Chattanooga when he served as the city’s mayor. Like other elected Republicans, he has long been critical of the president’s protectionist views on trade policy, arguing that they undermine the president’s stated “America First” strategy.
“Tariffs on the imports of cars and auto parts will not put our workers first by making it more expensive to build and sell cars here,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Corker’s counterpart. “They will destroy the thriving automotive industry that has been built by thousands of skilled Tennessee workers.”
Lawmakers have in the past considered legislative action to nullify Trump’s tariffs. But those efforts never went anywhere after GOP lawmakers argued it would be more prudent to help the administration tailor the tariff policy on the front end rather than dismantle it entirely.
But this week, Republicans’ posture toward the White House changed dramatically. Just hours after it was reported that the president’s top negotiators had agreed in principle to lift strict penalties on Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE as part of the broader trade talks with Beijing, senators voted overwhelmingly to block the administration from doing just that.
“We did cede [trade authority] years ago unfortunately, and probably we should be clawing some of it back,” said Corker.