Trump's Tariffs Are Illegal, And Should Be Rescinded

In March, the Trump administration imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from the EU, Canada, and Mexico, all without Congressional authorization. Trump was able to avoid such legislative oversight by invoking the National Security exemption within the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which allows the President to unilaterally impose tariffs if imports are “in such quantities or under such circumstances as to threaten or impair national security.” For the tariffs to be legal under US law then, they have to satisfy the criteria that they are protecting national security. Unfortunately for Trump, this justification is incredibly difficult to believe, to the point of absurdity.

First, the tariffs are levied on close allies, most of whom are obligated by treaty to defend the United States in times of military conflict, and who would clearly be willing to continue trading with the US if the country’s national security was at risk. Canadian and European soldiers are currently fighting alongside Americans in Iraq, Syria, Mali, and Afghanistan, making the idea that they represent security threats to the US outlandish.

Second, even Trump’s Department of Defense doesn’t believe the tariffs are necessary for national security. When asked earlier in the year, Defense Secretary James Mattis explained that “the U.S. military requirements for steel and aluminum each represent only about 3% of U.S. production. Therefore, DoD does not believe that the findings in the reports impact the ability of DoD programs to acquire the steel or aluminum necessary to meet national defense requirements.” Trump himself justified the tariffs on grounds irrelevant to national security, tweeting that the tariffs “are in response to [Canadian tariffs] of 270% on dairy!”

Third, in trade “talks” with the EU, Trump said he was willing to reduce tariffs on EU goods (and has since put a halt to their implementation) if the EU also agreed to reduce their trade barriers on agricultural products and LNG. These concessions are not related to national security, nor do they affect the steel and aluminum industries, and yet Trump is willing to remove tariffs that are supposedly “critical” to US national security to gain them. It’s hard to see how important the tariffs actually are to our security if they are only being used as a bargaining chip for completely unrelated trade efforts.

Finally, and most strikingly, the tariffs would actually do a poor job of defending US national security if steel and aluminum imports were a legitimate national security threat. While the tariffs theoretically would increase domestic production if imports were suddenly cut off, the key raw materials necessary for production (for example, bauxite for aluminum) are almost entirely imported and are unaffected by Trump’s tariffs. If, somehow, NATO turned on the US, they simply could embargo bauxite (of which America’s entire supply is imported) and effectively shut down US aluminum production, regardless of the tariffs currently imposed.

It is abundantly clear that the tariffs aren’t justified on national security grounds, but instead are a way to subvert Congress’ oversight role to achieve Trump’s domestic political goal of protection for favored industries. This is a blatant abuse of executive power that has real consequences for Americans. Trade policy is complex and affects nearly everyone in the country, and as a result the country’s representatives must have a say in whether to undertake such policies. Furthermore, this type of trade policy would effectively destroy the rules-based WTO system if adopted globally. If Trump can make up reasons to enact trade barriers against foreign imports at will, other countries will do the same against US exports, reducing US wages and jobs in the very manufacturing industries Trump is trying to protect.

More nefariously, Trump’s trade war ignores existing law to get around the checks and balances of the legislative branch. If the precedent is set that Trump can make up national security “emergencies” to justify his preferred policies, there is no telling where it would end. What is to stop Trump from creating another false emergency, and using it as he sees fit? Leaders on both sides of the aisle, regardless of their ideological position on the economics of trade, must stand up to Trump’s creeping authoritarianism and take back the oversight role for which Congress was created.