Trump orders probe into whether steel imports harming U.S.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump directed his administration Thursday to expedite a just-launched investigation into whether steel imports are jeopardizing U.S. national security, saying, “This is not an area where we can afford to become dependent on other countries.”

Both Buckeye State senators — Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Sherrod Brown — expressed support for the move and hope that it might eventually help revitalize the steel industry in Ohio.

“Today’s announcement is an important step toward addressing the impact of unfair steel imports on our national security,” Brown said. “I’m pleased the administration is willing to consider trade enforcement tools that haven’t been used in more than 15 years. But this investigation won’t mean much to Ohio steel companies and steelworkers unless it is followed by tough action that addresses China’s overcapacity and stops the flood of unfairly traded steel imports from coming into our market.”

Brown’s office said he has called on past administrations and the Trump administration to help reduce China’s steel overcapacity, which leaves U.S. steelworkers and companies at a competitive disadvantage.

Portman shared similar thoughts on the issue.

“I applaud the administration for its commitment to protecting the U.S. steel industry and American jobs. Addressing worldwide steel overcapacity is crucial to ensuring that American steelworkers have a level playing field. This crisis is particularly acute in Ohio, where more than 1,500 steelworkers have been laid off over the last two years. I look forward to continuing to work with the commerce secretary and the administration to protect Ohio jobs and stop trade cheats from unfairly trading steel into the U.S. market.”

Last October, Portman and Brown led a bipartisan group of senators in a letter to then-President Barack Obama to continue efforts to reduce China’s excess steel capacity through enhanced trade enforcement. In addition, the Leveling the Playing Field Act, co-authored by Portman and Brown, led to key wins for Ohio steel companies in major trade cases last year on cold-rolled, hot-rolled, and corrosion-resistant steel, including U.S. Steel, Nucor, ArcelorMittal, and AK Steel, which together employ more than 8,200 Ohio workers. The International Trade Commission ruled in favor of Ohio steelworkers and against foreign trade cheats three times. As a result, in all three cases the Commerce Department has issued antidumping and countervailing duty orders as high as 265 percent on steel coming from China and certain other foreign competitors.

Executives from U.S. steelmakers, who support the review, stood behind Trump as he signed a memo directing Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to return recommendations in the “very, very near” future. Trump said that could be as soon as 30 to 50 days.

Trump promised as a candidate to revitalize the American steel industry, the decline of which has been especially hard on states like Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania that were crucial to his victory.

The president said maintaining steel production is critical to U.S. security interests because it is needed to build airplanes, ships and other machinery, along with roads, bridges and other infrastructure. The American steel industry argues that if the U.S. is dependent on imported steel, it could be vulnerable if relations break down with nations that export it.

U.S. prominence in the industry has been slipping for decades. American-made steel once accounted for roughly 20 percent of global production, but had slipped to less than 5 percent by 2015, according to the Belgium-based World Steel Association. China made up less than 3 percent of U.S. steel imports.

Trump couched the investigation as part of action he took earlier in the week to enforce existing “Buy American” laws.

“From now on, we’re going to stand up for American jobs, workers and their security, and for American steel companies and companies in general,” Trump said. “Today’s action is the next vital step toward making America strong and prosperous once again.”

In 2001, the Commerce Department found no evidence of a threat after it examined potential national security risks from importing semi-finished steel.

What has changed since 2001 is that China now accounts for half of steel production, such that excess output by Chinese factories –regardless of imports to the United States– can dampen prices for U.S. steelmakers.

Asked whether the move would affect his dealings with China over North Korea, Trump said: “This has nothing to do with China. This has to do with worldwide, what’s happening. The dumping problem is a worldwide problem.”

A 1962 trade law that gives the president authority to restrict imports and impose tariffs if they are determined to harming U.S. security interests outlines 270 days for such investigations.