President Donald Trump is preparing to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada, Mexico and the European Union as soon as Friday, but conversations with his top advisers are still ongoing, a senior administration official said late Wednesday.
The decision could be made final Thursday, and the official put the odds of the U.S. imposing tariffs on all three close trading partners at 75 percent. But the official added that a meeting Thursday morning could change that decision or slow it down.
Any official document released by the White House is expected to include language saying that all decisions are subject to further negotiation, the official said, which leaves open the possibility that the countries could have some wiggle room to avoid the duties.
The news comes just hours before a temporary exemption that Trump had previously granted to Canada, Mexico and the EU — which together supply more than half of the steel that the U.S. brings in from abroad each year — is set to expire at midnight Thursday.
A decision to impose tariffs would be a shock to Canada and Mexico, as both countries thought that they would be spared from the levies because of earnest negotiations that they have had with administration officials over NAFTA. One U.S. industry official who had been in contact with negotiators from both sides said neither country had been notified by the White House as of Wednesday evening and they were learning of the possibility of tariffs from news reports.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland had traveled to Washington on Tuesday to discuss the issue, among other matters, with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. But she left having made little progress in discussions and having little idea of what the Trump administrations plans were, two sources briefed on the meeting said.
“Canada considers it frankly absurd that we would in any way be considered to be a national security threat to the United States,” Freeland told reporters Wednesday. “I would like to absolutely assure Canadian participants, those who work in steel and aluminum industries, that the government is absolutely prepared to and will defend Canadian industries and Canadian jobs.”
For the European Union, however, the news is less surprising. Cecilia Malmström, the EUs chief trade commissioner, had made it appear all but certain Wednesday that the bloc would face either a tariff or quota.
“Hopefully we will be able to have a positive agenda with the U.S. side, with no tariffs or quotas,” Malmström said after a meeting with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on the sidelines of a conference in Paris. “Realistically, however, we do not think we can hope for that.”
The administration has so far shared little insight on its decision-making process with anyone, even the U.S. steel industry, as the deadline looms, three industry sources said. The lack of communication had led to speculation that the administration might choose to extend its deadline once again, as it had a month ago.
But even those who support the tariffs have begun to ask for certainty from the administration on the way forward, and they warn the repeated delays take away from the benefits that the duties would provide.
“In my conversations with firms, what theyd like more than anything is some certainty: What are the tariffs going to be? What are the quota levels going to be, if there are going to be quotas? What are the product exclusions going to be?” said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a group that generally supports the tariffs. “The faster we get to the other side of that, the better off I think we are.“
Should the president proceed with tariffs on all three parties, the action will leave U.S. export industries and consumers vulnerable to what the countries have promised would be “immediate” retaliation.
Tit-for-tat duties on U.S. exports from agricultural products to whiskey, yachts and lipstick — as the EU has promised — would aggressively strike back at U.S. industries at a time when rising trade tensions with China have already cast uncertainty over their future and hurt their bottom lines.
Mexico has also vowed to take action by targeting politically sensitive products with punitive duties, though its list of products has not been made public. Canada has pledged to “respond appropriately” and protect domestic industry and jobs.
Still, the senior administration official and others closely following the presidents deliberation emphasized that nothing has yet been made final. Others speculate that the news reports could simply be the result of a strategic leak by West Wing advisers who oppose the tariffs and who wanted to alarm stakeholders into lobbying the president to change his mind before the decision is formally announced.
“Its decision-making over the airwaves,” said Dan Ujczo, an international trade attorney who focuses on U.S.-Canada trade issues.
“The smart money is that the president, who knows his base better than any political leader in recent history, will always return to what his voters in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and the Great Lakes states want,” he continued. “It may be a circuitous route, but he always comes home. Count on tariffs.”
Adam Behsudi contributed to this report.