Amid Mounting GOP Criticism, White House Shrugs Off Tariff Worries

Republican lawmakers increasingly uneasy, but Kudlow says trade war is last resort

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been among the big proponents of using tariffs to pressure China. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been among the big proponents of using tariffs to pressure China. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 6, 2018 at 2:37pm

Amid mounting criticism from Republicans and usually GOP allies, White House chief economic adviser Lawrence Kudlow and other White House officials on Friday pushed back on the idea that President Donald Trump is starting a trade war with China. 

The Trump administration might present the Chinese government with a list of trade tactics changes it would like to see implemented as a result of the ongoing tariff proposal tit-for-tat, Kudlow told a group of reporters.

“That is something that is under consideration,” he told reporters.

He also repeatedly tried to knock down the notion of a trade war.

“We’re not in a trade war. It’s not a trade war. What this is is an attempt by a strong willed, strong backboned president to right wrongs … by China,” Kudlow said.

Shortly after, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at the daily briefing was asked if the president is willing to fight a trade war with China unless Beijing makes some changes. She replied: “We don’t want it to come to that.”

But Trump has said to his staff that he is not using the proposed tariffs as a mere bargaining chip, Kudlow said, adding the president will implement the import fees if China opts against changing its tactics.

The administration would like to open formal negotiations with the Chinese government over its trade practices, Sanders said, describing some of its tactics as “unfair” and “illegal.”

Minutes earlier, Kudlow told reporters U.S. and Chinese officials have had backchannel talks as they have traded tariff proposals but are not formally negotiating.

The president’s detractors on the issue include Senate Republican leaders. Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who is third in leadership and chairs the Commerce Committee, was the latest to raise alarms. 

Referring to proposed Chinese retaliatory tariffs on products like pork and soybeans, Thune was not amused.

“They’re a big problem for American agriculture and they’re a big problem for South Dakota agriculture,” Thune told KDLT in Sioux Falls.

His neighboring colleague to the south, Nebraska GOP Sen. Ben Sasse, said that Trump’s tactics, threatening to up the ante with $100 billion more in tariffs aimed at China was “nuts.”

“China is guilty of many things, but the President has no actual plan to win right now. He’s threatening to light American agriculture on fire. Let’s absolutely take on Chinese bad behavior, but with a plan that punishes them instead of us. This is the dumbest possible way to do this,” Sasse said in a statement. 

Kudlow was asked if such worries in rural America, where China’s proposed retaliatory tariffs could hurt the agriculture industry, could hurt the Republican Party in November’s congressional elections by knocking issues the GOP wants to campaign on to the back burner.

“I will never let anything overshadow tax cuts,” Kudlow shot back before suggesting White House officials are banking on bigger-picture forces in November.

“The Trump administration, its success will rise and fall with the economy,” the former CNBC host and Ronald Reagan adviser said.

Kudlow repeated the line he has been pushing in interviews and interactions with reporters all week about the tariffs tussle: “Blame China, not Trump.”

He accused China of “stealing” American companies’ technology and intellectual properties for decades — and, like Trump, he blamed previous U.S. presidents and administrations for allowing it to occur.

“The nub of this discussion really is technology, and that China is stealing our technology,” he said, stressing the administration is pushing Beijing because technological advancements are the “future” of the U.S. economy.

“I’m not a tariff guy,” Kudlow said, adding: “I don’t like to use tariffs … but sometimes” they are necessary.

Kudlow spoke to reporters a few minutes after Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told CNBC “there is the potential of a trade war.”

“Our objective is still not to be in a trade war with them,” Mnuchin said. “On the one hand, we’re willing to continue negotiations. On the other hand, the president is absolutely prepared to defend our interests.”

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to work this out,” he added.

Ryan McCrimmon contributed to this report.