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President Donald Trump makes a comment at the White House in March 2018, when he signed proclamations on steel and aluminum imports. Watching as Trump leaves are, from left, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

It’s time to call the bluff on the ‘Bluffer-in-Chief’

Donald Trump’s latest threat to impose auto tariffs on the basis of national security concerns — unlike the steel and aluminum tariffs announced Thursday — should be taken for exactly what it is: A bluff.

The move is part of a long litany of American pressure tactics and threats of protectionism, using “creative” interpretations of trade laws.

Some of the threats are real, such as the recently imposed tariff on newsprint, a tax on U.S. newspapers and consumers in order to mollify a particular industrial constituency. Others are part of escalating U.S. pressure as part of the NAFTA negotiations.

It started by threatening Canada and Mexico with tariffs on U.S. imports of steel and aluminum — now a reality — ostensibly on national security grounds.

This was followed by the blatant hyperbole of designating Canada as a “priority watch list” country on the annual list of intellectual property transgressors published by the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office. This process placed Canada in the same category as Algeria, China and Venezuela and in a worse category than countries like Egypt and Pakistan.

Now the Trump administration is waving the threat of imposing special 25 per cent auto tariffs.

NAFTA pressure tactics

This is all about ratcheting up the pressure on Canada and Mexico to come to a deal on autos in NAFTA. The U.S. has been trying to revise the auto sector’s rules of origin to ensure that more value-added production takes place in the U.S.

The latest proposal reportedly involves ensuring that specified levels of production take place in jurisdictions paying auto workers at least US$16 an hour. This is specifically directed at Mexico, where the average hourly auto wage is around $4. When NAFTA was first negotiated more than 20 years ago, it was expected that Mexican industrial wages would rise more quickly than they have.

The fact that Canadian and European auto wages are essentially on a par with those in the U.S. is irrelevant to the Trump administration. The threatened tariffs are all about putting more negotiating coinage on the U.S. side of the NAFTA negotiating table.

Due to global supply chains, U.S. automakers are as aghast at Trump’s tariffs threats as any pro-free traders. An assembly line worker at the General Motors Assembly plant in Oshawa works on a car in December 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

The argument being presented to justify a national security (Section 232) investigation is that the growing share of the U.S. domestic auto market occupied by imports undermines American capabilities in research and development, technology and design and other head-office tasks.

This is hard to square with Trump’s goal of repatriating blue-collar assembly-line jobs. The reality is that outsourcing elements of production and assembly to lower-cost jurisdictions keeps production costs down and unit sales up for vehicles manufactured by U.S. auto companies, leading to the preservation —if not the expansion —of high value-added headquarters jobs.

‘Unworkable’ proposals

In the NAFTA negotiations, the U.S. side has put forward complex and largely unworkable formulas to calculate the rules of origin — often against the wishes of American automakers, who operate with global supply chains.

The proposals are so complex that many observers have speculated that it would be easier to simply pay the existing 2.5 per cent car import tariff than to try to comply with potential new U.S. rules in order to get duty-free NAFTA treatment.

Now the U.S. has upped the ante with a proposed tenfold increase to bring car tariffs in line with trucks, at 25 per cent on a value basis, signalling that simply swallowing the tariff should not be considered an option.

But let’s suppose that, after a lengthy investigation, the U.S. Commerce Department determines that the import of all those Mercedes, BMWs, Hyundais, Toyotas, Mazdas and Subarus from abroad — and of course the Chevys, Fords and Chryslers from Canada and Mexico —actually undermined U.S. national security. Who would suffer?

Along with those “latte-sipping, Porsche-driving” Democrats in California who Trump doesn’t like, the president’s favourite constituency, the U.S. “working man” and the middle-class families who drive American, Asian or European cars manufactured or assembled outside the U.S. would feel the brunt.

‘Art of the Deal’

The impact would be immediate, and would significantly drive up auto prices in the U.S. across the full range of vehicles.

It could even affect those “good ol’boys” with the rifle racks in the back windows of their pickup trucks. If you wanted to impose a new tax on the working and middle class in the U.S., this would be a very effective way to do it.

And that doesn’t even begin to count the negative impact on U.S. automakers, and therefore American manufacturing jobs, as well as jobs throughout the whole automotive retail ecosystem. The U.S. steel and aluminum action has set off a big enough reaction as is, forcing Canada to threaten its own dollar-for-dollar tariffs against U.S. goods that include steel, aluminum and maple syrup. But action on autos would be a step too far. ​

This is why it won’t happen, so let’s not panic.

The “Art of the Deal” may be all about talking tough, bluffing and bullying, but as any poker player knows, there comes a time to call a bluff. If there ever was such a time, this is it.

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