US market players anxiously awaiting President Donald Trump’s decision on whether or not to restrain steel imports got something else instead: the report of a rift between Trump and Wilbur Ross, secretary of the US Department of Commerce, which launched the import investigation last year.
Online news organization Axios reported early this week that Ross had fallen out of favor with Trump and that US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has taken over as chief trade negotiator.
Ross, a former steel executive who initiated the Section 232 steel import investigation, was said in the article to have been harshly criticized by the president and told he was no longer trusted to negotiate trade deals. The report also stated that Ross negotiated a steel trade deal with China that was rejected by the president.
On the heels of the report, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a press briefing that Trump has “100% confidence” in Ross. “He loves Wilbur, thinks he’s doing a great job and has been a strong advocate for the administration and been a great leader when it comes to the trade discussion on steel, aluminum, and certainly his involvement in trade across the board with the administration.”
Commerce public affairs officials contacted by S&P Global Platts had no comment on the report, but relayed comments made to Axios by other administration officials, including Lighthizer. He said he and Ross “work together every day” on trade issues and that Ross is valued for his “sharp business acumen, his insight into trade policy issues and his hard work to advance the president’s agenda.”
Deputy White House Press Secretary Raj Shah and Trump’s chief economic adviser Gary Cohn also issued statements (readily shared by Commerce public affairs staff) defending the Ross/Trump relationship. Shah told Axios that Ross “is leading the administration’s approach on steel, aluminum, intellectual property and trade,” adding that “far from souring on his performance,” Trump has expanded Ross’ responsibilities.
Commerce representatives queried by S&P Global Platts did not address the failed Chinese steel deal reported in the Axios article, which was titled “The decline and fall of Wilbur Ross.” Nor did the officials respond to questions about the Section 232 investigation and if it was impacted by any friction between Trump and Ross.
Ross launched the 232 investigation into whether steel imports were negatively impacting national security last April (followed by another covering aluminum), and suggested the probe results could be on the president’s desk a few months later. While welcomed by domestic steelmakers, the investigation initially had a negative impact on the mills as domestic buyers hustled to secure imports in advance of any trade restrictions that could result from the 232 action.
President Trump in late July deflated hopes of quick action on steel imports, saying that a resolution on 232 may have to wait until after “health care and taxes and maybe even infrastructure” were addressed. Axios reported that Ross fell out of favor with Trump in the middle of last year but that their relationship had improved since then.
Commerce finally delivered the 232 report to Trump about two weeks ago — a few days ahead of the mandated deadline — and the president has 90 days to decide on what actions to take, or to take no action at all. The aluminum Section 232 report was delivered late last week. Details of both reports were not released, pending the president’s decisions.
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