Trump: Auto imports don’t threaten national security

President Donald Trump said Friday he doesn’t see car imports as a national security threat, even though he has considered using national security justifications to slap tariffs on foreign automobiles and auto parts.

“Well, no,” Trump said when Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo asked if auto imports threaten the United States. “What poses a national security risk is our balance sheet,” he said, pointing to trade deficits with the European Union.

Trump’s comments could provide fodder for legal challenges from the auto industry if he follows through on the tariffs he promised last year.

Some companies harmed by his steel and aluminum tariffs last year have pushed back in the courts, arguing the President abused the Section 232 authority. Another more fundamental challenge from an alliance of steel importers makes the case that the power was improperly delegated to the White House when Congress passed the law in the first place.

Trump received a report from the Commerce Department last month about using the Cold War-era provision to impose tariffs on auto imports. The report has so far been kept secret, frustrating members of Congress who have pushed back on the threatened tariffs.

A dozen senators led by Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, Alabama Democrat Doug Jones and Maine Independent Angus King sent a letter on Friday urging the Commerce Department to publish its findings and to answer key questions about its methods.

Trump has until the middle of May to decide whether to impose the trade restrictions or not.

He has repeatedly threatened to target the European Union with auto tariffs, and pressure is ramping up as negotiations for a bilateral trade deal with the United States have hit a wall due to the parties’ intractable differences on agricultural products. The EU “frankly treats us as badly as China,” Trump said in the interview.

Although Trump agreed to a tariff ceasefire with the EU in July, unity was short lived. The White House now wants a comprehensive agreement that would open up European markets to American agricultural products, despite the EU’s unwavering demand that the deal avoid agriculture altogether. Trump’s top trade negotiator acknowledged at a hearing on March 12 that the two sides had reached “a complete stalemate” over the scope of the deal.

Opponents say auto tariffs would disrupt global supply chains, hurt consumers and punish American manufacturers who depend on imported auto parts. A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers has recently called for legislation to curb Trump’s power to impose the tariffs without congressional approval, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, says he is working on a compromise bill to address the matter.

The President has been unaffected by their concerns.

“Sure, it does,” Trump said when Bartiromo asked about the potential negative impacts of auto tariffs. “But you know what it does? I’ll tell you what the end game is: They’ll build their plants in the United States. Then they have no tariffs.”

He pointed specifically to Mercedes Benz and BMW. “I want them to make them here. Instead of making them over there, make them here. If you’re going to sell them to the Americans, make them here,” the President argued.

BMW has a plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Mercedes-Benz operates a plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Trump also addressed ongoing talks with China during the interview.

“The deal will probably happen. I think they need it very badly,” he said.

Earlier this week, Trump said current tariffs on China could remain “for a substantial period of time,” even if a deal is reached. “We have to make sure that if we do the deal with China that China lives by the deal because they’ve had a lot of problems living by certain deals,” he remarked on Wednesday.

Negotiations between the world’s two largest economies will continue next week when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer go to Beijing.

“We’re getting very close,” the President said. “That doesn’t mean we get there. But we’re getting very close.”