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Ross, Tillerson, Trump and Mnuchin. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration is at war with itself over a highly controversial plan to impose massive tariffs on steel and aluminum. Using an arcane law, the plan would describe the global glut of both metals as a national security threat to the United States.

Trump's senior advisers — Gary Cohn, Steven Mnuchin, Rob Porter, James Mattis and Rex Tillerson — think it would be a calamity if the president uses this law, called Section 232, to introduce steel and aluminum tariffs. They argue it would alienate allies in Europe and Canada, blow up the World Trade Organization, and send shockwaves through global markets.

Meanwhile, trade advisor Peter Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross support the potential tariffs, arguing the American steel industry will collapse without them. Their voices are lonely ones, but still quite powerful — in large part because they validate Trump's deeply held convictions.

The clock has started: On Thursday, Ross formally submitted to Trump the results of his department’s “investigation into the effect of steel mill product imports on U.S. national security.” That starts a 90-day clock for the president to decide whether to take action.

  • In the meantime, some of Trump's advisers hope the administration can take sufficiently aggressive actions against China — using a trade law known as Section 301 — to satiate the president’s protectionist impulses.
  • Given Trump’s unpredictability, it’s impossible to guess whether that strategy will work. But here's what might help: according to sources familiar with his thinking, Trump's top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, isn't as committed to the 232 strategy as most believe. He's much more focused on targeted actions against China, which he views as the ultimate economic threat to the U.S.
  • Potential punitive steps against China could include wide-ranging tariffs on Chinese-made products (especially consumer electronics) or new legal limits on China’s ability to invest in American companies in order to steal sensitive IP.

Our tip: A not-insignificant proportion of the steel and aluminum problems — global overcapacity — can be traced back to China and its transshipments. Some administration officials believe that appropriately targeted action on those could minimize damage from broader actions and still be considered consistent with the overall strategy of countering Chinese economic aggression.

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Ro Khanna wary of Biden approach on Middle East

Rep. Ro Khanna. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty Images

An outspoken progressive Democrat is wary of President Biden’s approach to the Middle East, arguing it’s like “conceding defeat of the aspiration” to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Why it matters: A number of members of Biden’s own party dislike his Middle East strategy, as his administration signals the region is no longer the priority it was for President Obama and his predecessors.

Democrats eye reconciliation for immigration

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Comprehensive immigration reform is a pipe dream, but some Senate Democrats are hoping to tie key immigration provisions to the next big reconciliation push.

Why it matters: Immigration is one of the most controversial and partisan issues in U.S. politics, which is why the budget reconciliation process — which allows for bills to pass the Senate with a simple majority rather than the usual 60 votes — is so attractive.

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Scoop: Biden meeting Quad amid own pivot toward Asia

Artists paint portraits of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in Mumbai, India. Photo: Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

President Biden plans to meet this month with the leaders of Japan, Australia and India in a virtual summit of the so-called Quad, according to people familiar with the matter.

Why it matters: By putting a Quad meeting on the president’s schedule, the White House is signaling the importance of partnerships and alliances to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.