Trump puts aluminum imports in ‘national security’ crosshairs

President Donald Trump will sign an order on Thursday directing the Commerce Department to complete the investigation of potentially unfair trade practices by China, Russia and others as “soon as possible,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said. | AP Photo

The Trump administration has launched an investigation into whether to restrict imports of aluminum from China, Russia and other suppliers — including NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico — on the grounds that they threaten U.S. national security.

“Imports have been flooding into the aluminum industry,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told reporters at a White House briefing on Wednesday evening in which he detailed the administration’s second national-security-motivated trade probe in as many weeks.

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President Donald Trump will sign an order on Thursday directing the Commerce Department to complete the investigation as “soon as possible,” Ross said. Trump gave the same instructions last week in signing an order calling for an investigation into whether to restrict steel imports on national security grounds.

Free trade advocates criticized the actions, arguing that they could encourage other countries to begin blocking U.S. exports on national security grounds.

“When you go down this path of reverting to the national security exception, it really is the nuclear option in trade law,” said Chad Bown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “You’re basically saying, ‘You can’t argue with me. I think this is so important it threatens our national security.’ There’s no counterargument to that.”

The barrage of presidential orders comes as Trump nears the end of his first 100 days in office this week with little to show in the way of trade accomplishments, despite promising during the campaign to make big changes in trade policy.

In one sign of frustration, White House officials were said to be preparing an executive order on withdrawing from NAFTA, even though the Trump administration had already pivoted toward renegotiating the 23-year-old agreement rather than abandoning it. Asked about the potential NAFTA executive order, Ross dismissed it as “just a rumor — and my practice is to comment on things we’ve actually done or are doing, as opposed to commenting on rumors.”

But Ross told reporters that more national-security import probes could be coming for industries such as semiconductors and shipbuilding. “We’re obviously considering those,” Ross said. “We’ve come to no conclusions as yet.”

Ross, a former businessman who made his fortune turning around distressed companies, said import restrictions could be needed to ensure the U.S. continues to produce enough “high-purity” aluminum used in various military aircraft, such…

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