Commerce Secretary Says 'Complexity' Has Stalled Trump Steel Protection Plan

By Jacob M. Schlesinger in Washington and Bob Tita in Chicago Features Dow Jones Newswires

President Donald Trump's pledge to quickly provide big import protection to U.S. steelmakers has gotten bogged down in "complexity," with no clear deadline for completion, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Congress on Thursday, according to lawmakers who attended the briefing.

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"The secretary used the word 'complexity' more than any other word," Michigan Democratic Rep. Sander Levin told reporters.

"There are complexities as to what the other countries would do" in terms of potential retaliation, Mr. Levin said. "There are complexities internally" with the possible impact on other industries.

"They were cognizant of the fact that there can be retaliation," said California Republican Rep. Judy Chu.

Mr. Ross's focus on the potential difficulties and disadvantages of imposing new limits on foreign steel highlights how the administration has gotten increasingly bogged down in the details of implementing what officials had originally portrayed as a simple, clear solution to what they called a stark problem of cheap foreign steel.

After Messrs. Trump and Ross launched the study three months ago, they vowed action by the end of June. But counterthreats from trading partners and worries about higher costs from steel users, among other factors, have slowed the process down.

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Mr. Levin and other lawmakers who attended the hourlong briefing said Mr. Ross didn't provide any schedule for a decision.

"That remains unclear," Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo said.

Mr. Ross's presentation to the House Ways and Means Committee -- the chamber's panel overseeing trade policy -- followed similar comments this week from Mr. Trump, who told The Wall Street Journal that he wanted to put the steel tariffs on a slower track.

In the Tuesday interview, the president said he had decided not to address the question until he had dealt with higher-priority issues like overhauling the health-care system and the tax code. He also said one reason for the delay was that "we like to keep very complicated subjects as simple as possible."

Mr. Ross himself declined to provide details of his hourlong closed-door House briefing, other than to tell reporters that "we aired a lot of issues," providing "background" for "when the reports eventually come out."

Mr. Ross was referring to his planned reports giving Mr. Trump recommendations for whether to impose new imports curbs on steel, and on aluminum, a sector also under consideration for new protections.

The longer-than-expected process has drawn criticism from labor unions that had originally cheered Mr. Trump's vow to steer the free-trade Republican party toward a more protectionist bent.

"Workers' hopes were raised during the campaign," Leo Gerard, the president of United Steelworkers, said after Mr. Trump's Journal interview. "They are sick and tired of Washington politicians saying they care, and dragging their feet."

Mr. Gerard had attended an Oval Office ceremony in April when Mr. Trump announced he was exploring the new steel protection policy.

Steel stock prices have been buffeted by shifting expectations over Trump actions. Shares of steel producers rose earlier this week on strong earnings and rumors of imminent tariffs, but have slid since Mr. Trump's comments.

"Steel mills have used the prospect of the tariff to push steel prices higher" so Mr. Trump's comments could have negative implications, said Gordon Johnson, an analyst for Axiom Capital Research, in a note to investors.

Write to Jacob M. Schlesinger at jacob.schlesinger@wsj.com and Bob Tita at robert.tita@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 27, 2017 19:09 ET (23:09 GMT)