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Trump Duties Spur Industry Campaign to De-Escalate Trade War

Mark Niquette
Shipping containers sit stacked on the Kota Cabar cargo ship at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, California, U.S., on Tuesday, July 17, 2018. The U.S. Census Bureau is scheduled to release trade balance figures on August 3. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Trade associations representing farmers, retailers and manufacturers and other industries are joining forces in a new multi-million-dollar campaign to oppose President Donald Trump’s tariffs, in the latest attempt by U.S. business to stop an escalating trade war.

Groups lobbying for months to persuade the president that tariffs are the wrong approach have been largely ignored, as Trump slapped duties on billions of dollars of imports from steel to Chinese products. But a new coalition called Americans for Free Trade is joining Farmers for Free Trade seeking to change the direction in Washington by highlighting stories of businesses, consumers and farmers in the heartland negatively affected by the duties.

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The groups announced the coalition Wednesday with a jointly funded campaign of more than $3 million, involving town hall-style events in key congressional districts ahead of the midterm elections, digital advertising and other grassroots outreach to Congress and the administration. More than 80 coalition members have signed a letter to all members of Congress asking for support in fighting the duties and providing oversight on trade policy matters.

The idea is to amplify the stories of small businesses, consumers, and industries hurt by the duties to show the administration that the short-term U.S. economic pain from tariffs and retaliation from other countries is not worth any long-term deal Trump hopes to strike using tariffs as leverage, coalition members said.

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Political Math

“The political calculus may lead the administration to think this is a winning hand,’’ said Dean Garfield, chief executive of the Information Technology Industry Council, whose members include Apple Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Microsoft Corp. “But if we can change the realities on the ground, then the administration may recalibrate.’’

U.S. business groups have been trying traditional advocacy and even unusual lobbying approaches to oppose the tariffs, including airing ads on “Fox and Friends’’ that Trump is known to watch. But those efforts haven’t deterred the president from imposing duties on metal imports and $50 billion in Chinese products so far. The administration has a list of $200 billion in additional goods targeted for duties that could be imposed at any time, and Trump has threatened to hit virtually all products from China.

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Trump has acknowledged the impact of the duties -- especially retaliatory tariffs on soybeans and other U.S. agricultural products -- by offering $12 billion in assistance to farmers, a key part of his political base who helped him carry rural states in 2016.

Consumer Squeeze

The new campaign will show the damage the tariffs are having across the U.S. economy and the “real economic consequences for American families,” Brian Kuehl, executive director of Farmers for Free Trade, a non-profit supported by major agricultural groups, said.

The group is joining the new coalition, which formalizes an ad hoc group of organizations and companies the National Retail Federation has helped lead. It includes other large trade associations such as the Consumer Technology Association, American Petroleum Institute, American Apparel and Footwear Association, Association of Equipment Manufacturers, Toy Association and National Fisheries Institute.

There are kick-off events planned starting next week in Chicago, Nashville, Pennsylvania and Ohio, with other events before the midterms “in key communities throughout the heartland,” the groups said.

“Our motto right now is, ‘Try everything,’’’ said Nicole Vasilaros, a senior vice president for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, a coalition member.

Economic Hook

The groups, which are calling the campaign the largest bipartisan advocacy effort against the duties, illustrates how broadly the impact of the trade war will be felt, said David French, senior vice president of government relations at the National Retail Federation.

“It really demonstrates that this is the entire U.S. economy that’s on the hook here,’’ French said.

The groups plan to highlight the plight of companies such as Chicago-based Cedar Electronics, which invented the CB radio under the Cobra brand and supplies radar-detection systems and other automotive and consumer electronic products with about 190 employees.

‘Beyond Frustrated’

The company would not have brought some of its manufacturing jobs from the Philippines to its facility in West Chester, Ohio, had it known that needed components from China would be targeted for duties, President and Chief Executive Officer Chris Cowger said.

Cowger said the company may have no choice but to pass on higher costs from the duties to consumers and is forced to spend time, energy and money addressing the disruption caused by the tariffs instead of developing new products.

“I’m beyond frustrated,’’ Cowger said. “I should be spending my time on making this company great.’’

Trump may only change course on trade if the stock market drops or the economy declines, but the larger the coalition making the case that duties are bad for the economy, the more effective it will be, said Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association.

“I’m not going to lie to you and say we’re 100 percent confident this is going to be successful,’’ Shapiro said. “We’re doing what we can do, all of us are doing everything new can do.’’

Updates starting with announcement of new coalition in third paragraph.

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