President Trump is making good on his pledge to protect the U.S. steel and aluminum industries. This afternoon, the president ordered steep tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Critics, including Republicans in Congress, warn the move will drive up prices and could spark retaliation by other countries. The impact was softened somewhat because Trump exempted imported metal from both Mexico and Canada — that's the leading U.S. supplier. In a few minutes, we'll hear what lawmakers have to say. First, NPR's Scott Horsley joins us from the White House. Hey, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.
KELLY: We have been awaiting this formal order for a week since the president first telegraphed his intent to impose tariffs. What was the scene like there at the White House?
HORSLEY: Well, the event took place in the Roosevelt Room. There were some cabinet officials on hand and a lot of men and some women in blue jeans and holding hard hats. They looked on as the president signed orders imposing a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and a 10 percent tariff on imported aluminum. Those are actually larger levies than the Commerce Department had recommended. The president says he wants to protect homegrown steel mills and aluminum smelters that he considers vital to national security.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We want to build our ships. We want to build our planes. We want to build our military equipment with steel, with aluminum from our country.
HORSLEY: This was the strongest move to date by a president who campaigned on an aggressive protectionist platform. And it comes, Mary Louise, on the same day that 11 other countries around the Asia-Pacific region were actually signing that big trade agreement that Donald Trump pulled out of.
KELLY: Indeed it is. What's going on with the exemptions we just mentioned for Canada and Mexico because initially the president had said these tariffs need to apply to everybody — every country?
HORSLEY: He did. He was worried that otherwise any country that was exempted would just become a backdoor for imports from the rest of the world to come through and evade the tariff. But after tremendous pressure, Trump agreed to at least a temporary exemption for Canada and Mexico that could be extended. It sort of depends on how talks proceed on extending — or rewriting the North American Free Trade Agreement. And the president said he might grant exemptions to other U.S. allies as well. The carve-out for Canada is especially important because, as you mentioned, that's the biggest exporter of steel and aluminum. Canada accounts for about 16 percent of imported steel in this country and 41 percent of imported aluminum.
KELLY: Well, how big a deal is this today for steel and aluminum workers?
HORSLEY: For the workers, it's a big deal. Both these industries have been badly beaten up by foreign competition. I talked this week with Mark Goodfellow who heads the Steelworkers Local in Massena, N.Y., where there's an Alcoa aluminum smelter. Their workforces — only about a third of what it was two decades ago. But Goodfellow says, with this announcement, things are looking up.
MARK GOODFELLOW: Everybody's just happy that we're — it feels like the American workers is getting a break and finally getting a shot to compete on a level-playing field.
HORSLEY: We had an announcement this week that U.S. Steel plans to restart one of two idle blast furnaces in Illinois and call back 500 workers. Also Century Aluminum is planning to invest money in an advanced aluminum smelter and hire an extra 300 workers in Kentucky.
KELLY: In Kentucky. Why has the president faced so much opposition though?
HORSLEY: Well, for every worker in a steel mill or an aluminum smelter, there are more than 40 who work in industries that use steel and aluminum. And those companies will have higher costs and could be at a disadvantage. Here's how Missouri Senator Roy Blunt put it in a meeting with the president.
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ROY BLUNT: We make aluminum, and we make steel in Missouri. But we buy a lot of aluminum, and we buy a lot of steel as well. From bass boats to beer cans, there's a lot of aluminum out there.
HORSLEY: And there's also the threat that there could be retaliation by other countries against U.S. exports.
KELLY: All right. Thank you, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
KELLY: NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House.