WHITE HOUSE - U.S. President Donald Trump is set to go ahead with his plan to impose tariffs of 25 percent on foreign steel and 10 percent on aluminum, but also vowed to remain flexible for specific countries. His comments came as 11 nations signed an expansive trade pact that aims to bring down trade barriers.
"I'm sticking with 10 and 25 [percent] initially," Trump said Thursday before a Cabinet meeting at the White House. "I'll have a right to go up or down depending on the country, and I'll have a right to drop countries or add countries."
Trump said he was staying the course to protect the American worker, even as he faced pushback from Republicans at home and threats of trade retaliation abroad.
The president is expected to sign a proclamation calling for the tariffs as early as Thursday, the same day 11 nations signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an expansive trade pact aimed at bringing down trade barriers.
U.S. media reported the White House was still finalizing details of Trump's plan.
In an early morning tweet, Trump said he was looking forward to a Thursday afternoon meeting at the White House and the importance of protecting U.S. industries.
Looking forward to 3:30 P.M. meeting today at the White House. We have to protect & build our Steel and Aluminum Industries while at the same time showing great flexibility and cooperation toward those that are real friends and treat us fairly on both trade and the military.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 8, 2018
The White House said Mexico and Canada would be given a 30-day exception that could be extended.
Meanwhile, trade ministers from the 11 CPTPP signatories — including Canada, Mexico, Japan and Australia — met in Santiago, Chile. They signed the Asia-Pacific trade pact, a smaller, modified version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), led and strongly backed by the Obama administration as a counterweight to China's increasing influence in the region.
Trump withdrew from TPP shortly after taking office, arguing the deal shortchanges America and hurts the American worker.
Signatories to CPTPP said they will reaffirm and realize the TPP agreement, and also promote and enhance regional economic integration and trade liberalization. The deal aims to remove almost all tariffs among signing nations. The 11 members are Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Chile and Peru.
The TPP was the largest trade agreement in history when it was signed in February 2016. It was a centerpiece of the Obama administration's "Pivot to Asia" and was seen as helping the United States lead other countries in a strategic bulwark to temper a rising China, the world's No. 2 economy. The deal was never ratified by Congress.
Response from home
Meanwhile, Trump's decision to impose tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum imports continues to face strong backlash from lawmakers. On Wednesday, a number of members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to the president, urging him to minimize negative consequences if he goes through with the tariff plan.
Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas told VOA he believes Trump has heard their voices, but he said, "the president's got some pretty fixed ideas about trade, and obviously he ran on those and, I think, feels obligated to follow through on his campaign promises."
Cornyn said he hopes that "we'll continue the conversation on things like NAFTA. I think rather than broad tariffs that apply to our friends and allies, we ought to be more targeted, if they are going to exist at all."
The tariffs proposal has won support from some Democratic lawmakers in manufacturing states whose fortunes could be boosted by the tariffs protecting their metal industries.
Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio said in an interview with VOA, "We're a country that believes in the rule of law, and you enforce rules and you enforce laws. China has continued to cheat by subsidizing land and energy and water and capital, and they will continue if we don't draw a line."
Brown said he believes Trump "did the right thing" and he appreciated Trump being aggressive. However, he said he would have done it slightly differently. "I would have focused more on China and less on Canada and our trading partners that have played more fair," he said.
VOA's Michael Bowman contributed to this report.