The Trump administration came under fire from both parties on Capitol Hill on Thursday as legislators expressed intensifying concern about the economic damage that could result from a trade war with America’s key partners.
In an unusual display of bipartisan harmony, senior Republicans and Democrats hammered administration officials over the risks to the US economy as Donald Trump pursues trade actions both against China and close US allies including Canada, Mexico and the European Union.
Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accused the president of having no strategy on trade and of abusing his authority as he declared: “I have not heard a single senator come back with any earthly idea — any earthly idea — cannot articulate a sentence as to why we are doing this.”
In the House financial services committee, Jeb Hensarling, the Republican chairman, told Steven Mnuchin, US Treasury secretary, that the “economic miracle” the president had fostered may well be lost if the country gets mired in a “full-fledged global trade war with no end in sight.”
Folks are confused. They are anxious and they have a concern. And you just heard it from us on a bipartisan basis
Maxine Waters, the Democratic ranking member of the committee, said the reaction of business — including Harley-Davidson’s decision to move some production overseas to avoid tariffs — promised pain ahead for US workers and consumers.
“The Trump administration appears to be flying by seat of pants with no plan for how to address the possibility of a recession, the higher prices consumers will pay, and the resulting losses of millions of American jobs,” she said.
At a separate event, Paul Ryan, the Republican House speaker, joined the chorus of criticism. “We risk having American products locked out of new markets, jobs moved overseas, and a decline in American influence. As our generals will tell you, these agreements are just as important for our national security as they are for our economy,” he told the Economic Club of Washington.
The anxiety comes after the announcement that the administration is beginning the process of imposing tariffs on a further $200bn of imports from China, on top of previous rounds of levies. Business surveys have indicated rising angst among executives and minutes from the Federal Reserve’s latest rate-setting meeting reported that some firms have put investments on hold or reduced them.
Mr Mnuchin told members of the House financial services committee that his department had not seen any negative economic impact from the policies but that it was “very much monitoring the impact on the economy of all these different issues.”
Addressing trade tensions, he said there is a planned meeting with the EU later this month and insisted the government was “very focused” on responding to retaliatory measures being imposed on US products by foreign governments. He said the administration was open to renewing talks with China if Beijing showed it wished to make “structural changes”. Talks on the North American Free Trade Agreement were a top priority now the Mexican election was out of the way, he added.
Manisha Singh, assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, faced a similarly hostile grilling from Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The toughest line of questioning came from Mr Corker who warned at the start of the hearing that Ms Singh was about to be “cannon fodder”.
“I believe the president is abusing his authorities. I believe it is a massive abuse of his authorities,” Mr Corker said. When Ms Singh attempted to defend the administration, laying out the five pillars of the administration’s plan on trade, Mr Corker shot back: “That enlightened us in no way.”
Mr Corker and Jeff Flake — another Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — have been two of the most outspoken critics of Mr Trump’s trade policies. Both men have announced they are retiring at the end of this term, allowing them more flexibility to go after the president and his policies.
Despite the uproar on Capitol Hill, it is not clear what Congress will do to influence trade policy. On Wednesday, the Senate backed a measure authored by Mr Flake and Mr Corker designed to give Congress a greater say on trade policies. The provision is largely symbolic, although its sweeping passage by a vote of 88-11 underscored the extent of concerns about trade policy on Capitol Hill.
Mr Corker has authored a bill that would roll back Mr Trump’s unilateral trade authority and subject the tariffs that Mr Trump has introduced on national security grounds to congressional approval. So far, Republican leadership has refused to bring Mr Corker’s bill to a vote.
During the Senate hearing, Ms Singh faced criticism from alarmed senators who laid out the impact Mr Trump’s trade gambit was having on their states.
“Folks are confused. They are anxious and they have a concern. And you just heard it from us on a bipartisan basis,” said Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware. The closest US allies were “puzzled” and “offended”, he added.
“You are going to put companies in New Mexico out of business with these tariffs,” warned Tom Udall, a Democratic senator from New Mexico.