The Trump administration, swept into office by its inward-focused “America First” message, is rattling its saber. President Donald Trump’s tough talk about North Korea and missile strikes in Syria get most of the attention, but his team is suddenly openly discussing what it would take to put key U.S. industries on a war footing.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus describes his boss’s foreign policy as a mix of America First isolationism that helped him win the presidency, and a willingness to stand up to harsh dictators such as those in Syria and North Korea. At first glance, that definition of Trump’s foreign policy seems disjointed.
At a roundtable with a group of reporters last week in his West Wing office, Priebus reiterated that the president intends to carry out his campaign pledge to keep the United States out of messy — and pricey — Middle East ground wars.
Trump himself declared in February during an address to a joint session of Congress that he was unlikely to deploy U.S. ground forces and their ships, vehicles, aircraft, and other weapon systems to the region. Like on the campaign trail he seemed to express that same sentiment about other regions.
“I will not allow the mistakes of recent decades past to define the course of our future. For too long, we’ve watched our middle class shrink as we’ve exported our jobs and wealth to foreign countries,” he said standing in the House chamber. “We’ve financed and built one global project after another, but ignored the fates of our children in the inner cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, and so many other places throughout our land.”
“We’ve defended the borders of other nations while leaving our own borders wide open for anyone to cross and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate,” Trump told lawmakers. “And we’ve spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas, while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled.”
Statements like those from the president and his chief of staff seem misaligned with two in-the-weeds — but revealing — investigations his Commerce Department kicked off last week to examine the U.S. steel and aluminum industries.
Both probes are largely framed in a national security context. Both will aim to uncover whether either industry is healthy enough to meet the increased demands of a country at war — and, based on officials’ descriptions, not the kinds of medium-intensity conflicts of the post-9/11 era.
Trump’s tough talk has become commonplace since last month, when he ordered the firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles (the 60th failed), costing around $1.5 million apiece, at an airbase in Syria to send a message to President Bashar Assad. His vice president, press secretary and other senior advisers have also followed suit.
One likely would not expect his soft-spoken, grandfatherly Commerce secretary to get in on the act. Yet, in some ways, 79-year-old Wilbur Ross, a career Wall Street banker known as the “king of bankruptcy” for his golden touch at buying and later selling at substantial gains collapsing businesses, is emerging as one of the most hawkish Trump administration officials.
During a briefing at the White House on April 26 about his department’s aluminum industry and imports probe, Ross was asked if U.S. aluminum firms can now meet all Pentagon demands.
“It does, for the moment, in a peacetime setting. The question is not that,” the secretary said. “The question is: What happens if we have to mobilize, if we have to get into a different environment?”
His comment suggests the Trump administration has reviewed data it inherited and concluded that the aluminum and steel industries could supply the replenishment of cruise missiles after one-off strikes, and even keep up with the demands of wars like the one started in late 2001 in Afghanistan, 2003 in Iraq and ongoing operations in those countries and places like Syria.
A few days earlier, as he briefed reporters about a separate national security investigation of the U.S. steel industry, Ross noted that the Trump administration is asking Congress for $30 billion more in fiscal 2017 and a 10 percent hike over the Pentagon’s 2016 funding level. It plans to buy new combat equipment, consistent with Trump’s campaign promise to “rebuild” the U.S. military.
“The reason for it now is that steel is an important factor in our infrastructure as it relates to national defense,” Ross said of the steel inquiry. “We’re building up aircraft, we’re building up our [naval] fleet, we’re building more tanks, we’re building all kinds of military equipment.
Given the amount of steel — and aluminum — that might take, the probes seem understandable, says one defense industry expert.
“The U.S. aluminum and steel industries are in dire straits, and could not cope with a surge in military demand,” said Loren Thompson, a Lexington Institute defense analyst who also advises arms manufacturers. “There are only two fully functioning aluminum smelters left in the U.S., compared to two dozen in 2000.”
“Domestic aluminum industry employment has shrunk to 3,000 workers in the face of unrelenting, subsidized exports from China,” Thompson said. “So the Trump investigation is long overdue, given how important aluminum is to aerospace and other industries contributing to defense.”
During both briefings in recent days, Ross, unprompted by reporters, kept mentioning the possibility of a non-peacetime (read: wartime) footing.
“If it turned out they had to ramp up, the question is: Are we getting to the point that the industry couldn’t deal with that?” he said.
(Congress has yet to sign off on the Trump administration’s defense plans, which could be part of another government-funding fight later this year.)
At issue, Ross explained, are specialty items used in America’s combat arsenal, the most technologically sophisticated in human history, according to Pentagon observers. Specifically, he pointed to “high-purity aluminum.”
He listed off the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to be used by the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy, the F-18 series of combat jets, and the C-17 cargo plane. If the Trump administration plunged the United States into a ground war or other major conflict, those are among the platforms for which the Pentagon could place new orders. That is also true of other things Ross ticked off, including armor plating, ships and missiles.
“Moreover, the percentage of aluminum content in armor plating is increasing to as much as 60 percent as we go into the next generation of military vehicles,” the Commerce secretary said, listing another item sure to be part of any wartime buildup.
At once, the inquiries’ collective focus on a massive wartime military buildup is both in line with candidate Trump’s promise to “rebuild” what he calls a depleted U.S. military and out of step with his declarations to avoid new large-scale American ground conflicts.
The steel and aluminum studies’ focus on a wartime buildup is just the latest example of Trump’s mixed messages. For instance, in recent days, the president has both warned of a “major, major conflict with North Korea” and expressed empathy for the isolated country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, taking power in 2012 at just the age of 27. He even said he would meet with Kim, if circumstances were right for such a summit.
According to Daniel Benaim of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, after just over “100 days in office, the greatest question mark injecting volatility into the system remains Donald Trump himself,” whom he sees as dangerously employing an “an unmoored approach.”
Benaim also warned “above all” of “the alarming combination of escalating militarism and diminished diplomacy.”
For such critics, the administration’s study of whether the defense industry could meet escalated wartime demands likely won’t be soothing any concerns.