Subscribe for 33¢ / day

When President Donald Trump announced his plan to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, plenty of Republicans took him to task, some fearing a trade war. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, shares that fear. 

“You can’t predict how your trading partners may react. People do things out of anger that may not be rational,” he said Sunday on "UpFront with Mike Gousha."

Johnson explained his criticism of the tariffs, saying a trade war could “really counteract all the positive things this administration has already done," with particularly negative effects for Wisconsin.

"In Wisconsin, we’ll probably be one of the states who will be most affected by this," he said. 

On Thursday, Trump signed orders that tax aluminum imports at 10 percent and steel imports at 25 percent. The tariff does not apply to Canada and Mexico. 

Along with anxiety about a potential trade war, some critics are worried about the effects on American companies and consumers. Johnson voiced concerns on both of those points, and said the move eats away at the most significant accomplishment of Trump’s administration: rolling back regulatory burdens.

“That is so significant because it brings certainty, it brings optimism, it helps business people decide to make those investments. Our tax cuts have led business people to increase wages,” Johnson said. “All those positive things could be completely undermined by a potential trade war.”

Wisconsin could suffer from that trade war, as the European Union threatened tariffs on “politically targeted” industries like Wisconsin cranberries and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Plus, the move increases the cost of production for Wisconsin companies, Johnson said. 

That will make Wisconsin products less competitive in the global market, he said. If a company exports 20 to 30 percent of their product, that’s “goodbye 20 to 30 percent of your workforce, potentially,” he said.

Johnson said history is on his side. He said when former President George W. Bush implemented steel tariffs in 2002, it resulted in the loss of about 200,000 jobs in steel-using industries, according to one study.

“We already have the history. I don’t think this is theory,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he talked to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross before Ross was confirmed, and expressed concern about the president's stance on trade, but was assured that any changes would target trade abuses. Johnson said the exemptions for Canada and Mexico were a good start toward more specifically targeting abuses, but said he hopes for more exemptions, as the tariffs are still too broad.

Johnson is not alone in his viewpoints, as House Speaker Paul Ryan has also expressed concerns. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker asked Trump to reconsider, but later said there’s a possibility some Wisconsin companies could be exempt. Johnson said that Republicans in the Senate have “been pushing back on this administration literally for months.” 

“But the president’s believed this for decades and he’s implementing it. Hopefully we’ll be able to talk to him and limit the damage,” Johnson said.

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

Johnson said he wants to “get the facts on the table,” and is writing to Ross for his “economic justification.”

“Maybe this is a negotiating tactic,” he said. “It’s kind of a risky one if it is.”

Johnson also briefly commented on the president's agreement to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about the country’s nuclear weapons.

“I’ve always been puzzled by the comments, ‘He can’t meet with Iran, he can't meet with North Korea, you can't give them that, can’t let them have that kind of diplomatic win.’ I’ve never really understood that,” he said.

Johnson supports a meeting as long as pressure is still applied to North Korea, unlike Iran negotiations, where “we gave them everything they wanted up front, and now their behavior has become even worse.”

“I think you have to actually credit President Trump for showing strength and resolve in potentially bringing Kim Jong Un to a negotiating table, as long as we don’t release pressure,” he said.

There should be “verifiable results” that North Korea is denuclearizing, he said, before any concessions are made.

“We’ve seen this before, Lucy’s always pulled the football away from Charlie Brown and that’s exactly the kind of tactic that North Korea’s used in the past, is come to the negotiating table, get $4 billion of something, get some oil, and then just continue on with your program,” Johnson said.