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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Since taking office and replacing his Rolls-Royce with an armored Cadillac called "the Beast," Trump seems to have spent more time thinking about cars than any other industrial sector, per aides past and present. He's also bred uncertainty, including over whether he’ll slap tariffs on imported cars.

Why it matters: Trump wants to restore American auto manufacturing to what he considers its mid-20th-century greatness, according to aides. But his ideas for saving the industry are creating angst for its top execs.

Over many months, Axios has interviewed industry executives about Trump's policies and other sources who've discussed the auto industry with the president.

As with most relationships, it's complicated:

  • Automakers hated being used as political punching bags during the 2016 campaign — Trump berated Ford on Twitter, for example, about building cars in Mexico and often got his facts wrong.
  • After the election, they were generally pleased by Trump's attention to their issues, but not always with his actions.
  • Corporate tax reform was a welcome boost, but then his steel and aluminum tariffs wiped out much of their tax savings and drove up car prices.
  • Economists predict a sales downturn this year.

Now Trump is threatening to slap 25% tariffs on imported vehicles and car parts — which no one in the industry has asked for. As we've previously reported, most of Trump's senior economic advisers — with the notable exception of Peter Navarro — think new car tariffs are a terrible idea.

  • But Trump tells everyone who'll listen that the threat of car tariffs is his best leverage in talks with foreign leaders.

Trump's bargaining chips have expensive implications for the auto industry — and for consumers. Ford CEO James Hackett said last September that Trump's steel tariffs would cost the automaker about $1 billion in profits.

  • New tariffs would hurt auto suppliers, car dealers and U.S. factories that depend on global supply chains.
  • Toyota, which promises to spend $13 billion to expand U.S. manufacturing by 2021, warns that Trump's tariffs would raise the price of a U.S.-built Camry by $1,600.
"There are 137,000 Americans who design, build, sell and maintain American-built Toyota vehicles. They deserve to know if they’re a security threat. And consumers need to know if their costs for American-made vehicles are going to go up."
— James Lentz, CEO, Toyota Motor North America

Over the past two years, Trump has latched onto all kinds of ideas he thought would help the car industry. But the auto industry asked for almost none of them.

One backdoor move that died: making foreign car companies adhere to higher fuel economy standards than American companies.

Unwinding Obama-era fuel economy standards is popular with conservatives, but the auto industry is wary.

  • Automakers welcomed the regulatory review, saying Obama’s higher standards would be tough to meet and didn’t match consumer demands.
  • Publicly, they say they're open to gradual increases. But privately, some welcome Trump's rollback, according to several sources.
  • Now Trump is battling California over the issue, as the state fights to set its own stricter standards.
  • Automakers’ top priority is ensuring the U.S. has only one nationwide standard.

The bottom line: "There's political uncertainty everywhere you look, which is worse than any technological uncertainty because it has a chilling effect on investments," John Bozzella, president and CEO of the Association of Global Automakers, told Axios.

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - World

U.S. airstrike kills senior al-Qaeda leader in Syria, DOD says

A displacement camp near the village of Qah in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. Photo: Ahmad Al-Atrash/AFP via Getty Images

A U.S. airstrike in northwest Syria on Friday killed senior al-Qaeda leader Abdul Hamid al-Matar, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.

Why it matters: Syria serves as a "safe haven" for the extremist group to plan external operations, according to U.S. Army Maj. John Rigsbee.

Updated 7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Giuliani associate Lev Parnas convicted of campaign finance crimes

Lev Parnas, a former associate of then-President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Florida businessman Lev Parnas was convicted Friday on charges of conspiracy to make foreign contributions to political campaigns, according to multiple outlets.

Why it matters: Prosecutors said Parnas, then an associate of former President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, funneled over $150,000 from a Russian businessman into U.S. campaigns as part of an effort to land licenses in the U.S.'s legal cannabis industry.

Supreme Court agrees to hear challenges to Texas abortion law

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear two cases challenging Texas' abortion law, which bans the procedure as soon as six weeks into pregnancy, but left the law in place in the meantime.

Why it matters: The court is moving extraordinarily fast on the Texas cases, compressing into just a few days a process that normally takes months. And that schedule means the court will take up Texas' ban a month before it hears another major abortion case — a challenge to Mississippi's own 2018 ban on abortions after 15 weeks.

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