US politicians break ranks over Donald Trump’s ‘nuts’ trade moves against China

‘This is the dumbest possible way to do this,’ Republican senator Ben Sasse says after US leader threatens to levy more tariffs on Chinese goods

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 April, 2018, 7:53am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 April, 2018, 10:41pm

As the United States and China edge closer to an all-out trade war, some American politicians are breaking party ranks over US President Donald Trump’s threat to levy punitive tariffs on an additional US$100 billion in Chinese goods.

Despite dissent in his own Republican Party, Trump showed no sign on Friday of backing down. 

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“I’m not saying there won’t be a little pain,” Trump reminded US investors in an interview with New York radio station WABC.

“So we might lose a little of it but we’re going to have a much stronger country when we’re finished, and that’s what I’m all about.’’ 

Trump said he asked the Office of the US Trade Representative to identify products that could be subject to the latest round of punitive duties.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC that the friction between the world’s two largest economies had the “potential of a trade war”. 

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But the US government preferred to end the growing trade friction through talks, he said. 

“We are willing to negotiate. We are in communication with them regularly.”

Trump’s threat to levy more duties on Chinese items followed the release earlier this week of a list of US$50 billion in imported Chinese products that would be hit with punitive tariffs following a government investigation under Section 301 of the US Trade Act into China’s alleged intellectual property theft. 

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While the president’s latest trade action provoked a predictable crossfire of responses between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, it also galvanised a number of politicians to buck their own parties.

One of Trump’s critics from within the Republican camp, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, denounced the president’s new ploy as “nuts” and “dumb”. 

He's threatening to light American agriculture on fire. Let's absolutely take on Chinese bad behaviour, but with a plan that punishes them instead of us
Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse

“Hopefully the president is just blowing off steam again but, if he's even half-serious, this is nuts,” Sasse said.

“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 behaviour, but with a plan that punishes them instead of us. 

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“This is the dumbest possible way to do this.” 

Straying from the traditional party view for the Democrats was Elizabeth Warren. 

The Massachusetts senator, who is normally a fierce Trump critic, endorsed the White House’s rhetoric during her three-day visit to China last week.  

After years of mistakenly assuming economic engagement would lead to a more open China, the US government was doing something about Beijing’s demand that US companies give up trade secrets in exchange for access to China’s market, Warren said. 

“The [US’s] whole [China] policy was misdirected,” Warren said in Beijing. 

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“We told ourselves a happy-face story that never fit with the facts. Now US policymakers are starting to look more aggressively at pushing China to open up the markets without demanding a hostage price of access to US technology.”  

Hewing closer to the traditional party narrative was former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who is running for a US Senate seat in Utah. 

Romney played down the impact of Trump’s latest trade move and said he doubted it would lead to a full-blown trade war with China. 

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During a campaign event on Thursday in Sandy, Utah, Romney said Trump’s policies would “wake up” Beijing and “they’ll recognise that business as usual is going to have to change”.

“China over the years has taken advantage of the attitude in America, which is we haven’t watched very closely and they’ve been cheating,” Romney said.

Another typical Democratic view was expressed by Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who called Trump’s plan for added tariffs a “reckless gamble”. 

Escalating the potential of a trade war with China “gambles the livelihoods of US farmers and ranchers across rural America”, Heitkamp said in a Twitter post. 

“Sixty per cent of North Dakota’s exports to China are agricultural products.” 

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“[China’s] unfair trade policies need to be reined in,” she said. “But this isn’t the way to do it.” 

North Dakota’s agricultural products, including soybeans, would be subject to 25 per cent tariffs that Beijing is imposing on imported US goods in retaliation for Trump’s punitive duties on US$50 billion of imported Chinese items.

Additional reporting by Robert Delaney