Watchdog warns of 'improper influence' in US handling of tariffs

And a 'lack of transparency.'

A federal watchdog criticized the way the Trump administration handled the tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, warning that a "lack of transparency" created the appearance of "improper influence."

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The Commerce Department's inspector general flagged the process in which companies dependent on foreign steel and aluminum had to request relief from the import tax. When President Trump first announced the tariffs in March 2018, it set off a scramble among companies, industry groups and foreign companies seeking exemptions from the tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on steel.

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In a report released this week, the IG said department officials discussed exclusion requests with "interested parties," and took action after those exchanges. However, it noted those conversations were not included in the official record, "giving the appearance that the exclusion request review process is not transparent and that decisions are not rendered based on evidence contained in the record."

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Rulings on exemption requests by Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security are supposed to be final. But the IG found evidence of an "unofficial appeals process," in which officials reconsidered several approved exclusion requests when other companies objected, "creating the perception of undue influence."

However, the IG noted that it did not find any evidence these decisions had been changed.

In a statement, Commerce said it "has taken numerous steps to safeguard" the process. But it said it takes the IG’s critique seriously and "plans to further improve transparency."

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The administration agreed to hear appeals from companies that rely on imported metals. It expected to get 4,500 requests for relief. But through mid-June, according to research by McDaniels and Danielle Parks at Mercatus, it had been deluged with 72,771. Commerce has approved nearly 72% of the requests it’s ruled on.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.