WASHINGTON – White House aide Kellyanne Conway Wednesday defended the Trump administration's tariffs against Canadian steel and aluminum, downplaying the risks of a U.S-Canadian trade war.
Responding to a question from The Buffalo News about concerns that a trade war could hurt Great Lakes states where many businesses depend on Canadian trade, Conway said: "The president and his administration are listening to these concerns and these predictions, but the president made clear from the beginning as a candidate in promising that the U.S. would no longer be on the receiving end of bad trade deals."
Conway, speaking at a reporters breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, stressed that the Canadian tariffs are part of a broader Trump administration policy to get tough on America's trading partners.
"The deals that he feels that have been made over decades put the U.S. and U.S. interests and U.S. workers at a disadvantage," said Conway, whose title is counselor to the president but who also serves as one of Trump's main media spokespeople.
What's more, Conway said Trump is emboldened on economic issues because he sees his policies working.
Given that employment in the coal industry and others that he has defended have ticked upward, "he sees the metrics on the other side – that his policies and his leadership and his promises his vision have led to increases in employment in many of these industries," Conway said.
Besides, she said, the president has become accustomed to hearing dire predictions that his policies will fail.
"He has been told so many times over the last three years: 'You can't do that,' " Conway said. " 'You can't say that, you can't actually go through with that. The world will fall apart or the mountains will crater.' He's always told bad things will happen."
So often, though, Trump's decisions turn out right, thereby emboldening him to continue following his instincts, Conway said.
"It's not that he does it because he says: 'I'm going to show you,' " she said. "It's because he thinks it's the right thing to do and that it's a matter, often, of presidential leadership and the will to get it done."
In addition, Trump imposed the steel tariffs on Canada, Mexico and the European Union because he believes he has to support the U.S. steel industry because it's so important to the nation at large, Conway said.
Noting that Trump has said: "You know, if we don't have steel, we don't have a country," Conway added: "It's part of our nation's economic backbone."
Trump imposed a 25 percent tariff on steel imported from Canada, Mexico and the European Union last week, as well as a 10 percent tariff on imported aluminum, prompting retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods from each of those entities.
The president's decision to impose tariffs on those metals from Canada and Mexico have prompted speculation that the moves were aimed at pressuring those two countries into concessions as they work with the U.S. to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But Conway indicated that the NAFTA negotiations have proceeded largely on a separate track from the Trump administration's decision to move forward on the steel and aluminum tariffs.
"The conversations on NAFTA have been done separate and distinct from that often; sometimes they’ve been done similarly," she said. "But at the same time, remember, even internally the conversation and the discussions with the president, with the others, are dealt with separately, often, and then altogether when it's appropriate."
Conway didn't offer much hope for a renegotiated NAFTA, though, indicating that it's more likely the Trump administration would strike separate trade deals with Canada and Mexico.
"He likes bilateral trade deals," she said. "He's been very clear about that."
Conway's comments didn't exactly impress Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who fears that the tariffs -- and Canada's retaliatory moves -- will hurt local companies who do business on both sides of the border.
Asked to comment on what Conway said, Higgins responded: "This is a total disregard for fact and context."
Noting that plenty of New York and Ontario companies have supply chains from both sides of the border, Higgins said: "Western New York is so highly dependent on Southern Ontario. It's an integrated economy" -- one that would be damaged by tariffs, he added.
But Conway noted that Trump had elevated trade – "an asterisk for years in the polling" – into a centerpiece issue in his administration, and she said that's unlikely to change.
"He's saying: 'Yes, I'm going to rip up the trade deals but I'm not going to harrumph and then walk away," Conway said.
Instead, Trump will negotiate trade deals that are more fair and more reciprocal.
"He thinks American workers and American industry have been screwed over time," Conway said. "He says that constantly."