President Trump is facing a growing rebellion in his own party as Republicans rise up in protest against the steel and aluminum tariffs he unilaterally decided to impose on imported metals in what the party leaders feel could be the opening shots of an incipient trade war that could seriously damage the economy.
Today, one of the president’s most frequent critics within the Republican Party, Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), introduced legislation to eliminate Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, saying that the Oval Office is inviting “economic disaster.”
“If we enter a trade war, we risk reversing those gains we have made. We in Congress simply can’t be complicit as this administration courts economic disaster in this fashion,” Flake said, emerging as the Senate’s leading trade pacifist on the GOP side of the aisle.
Flake, who has already announced that he will not seek re-election to the Senate this year, has little to lose in attacking the president so aggressively. He is reportedly mulling a primary challenge if Trump stays out of prison long enough to run for a second term.
Senator Flake was passionate in his rhetoric while advancing his bill to his senatorial colleagues, telling them “You can be pro-growth; you can be pro-tariff, but you can’t be both.” He accused Trump of using trade as a “scapegoat” during his campaign as a crutch to help him win the election with populist slogans.
“I understand free trade is sometimes a challenge. I understand that it’s a challenge on the campaign trail, certainly. It’s often easier to point to a shuttered factory and blame trade or immigration or some other convenient scapegoat,” the Senator said.
According to the U.S. Constitution, the power to levy taxes and tariffs exclusively belongs to Congress (“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises.”)
In practice, however, Congress has ceded that power to the presidency as part of the control of foreign policy, in much the same way that it has handed off the power to control overseas military incursions without the formal declaration of war from Congress that the Constitution calls for.
If the other members of Congress agree with Flake and vote to reclaim their constitutional right to levy and remove tariffs, they will still need Trump to sign the bill or else they will need to vote to override his veto with a two-thirds majority, something that will require bipartisan support.
It remains to be seen if a significantly large enough number of Republicans are willing to assert their rights to set trade policy when it comes to tariffs and to defy a president who has made trade his signature campaign promise.
This is the point when the public will discover what the GOP’s corporate donors want to see happen with tariffs. While Republicans in Congress may defy the will of the public, as they have with so many issues including the environment and gun control, and may defy the policies that the President is promoting, they always do what the people financing their campaigns tell them to do, without fail.