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A welder at Schuff Steel in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

President Trump is determined to impose tariffs to protect the U.S. steel and aluminum industries from foreign competition. But his administration’s “national security” rationale is unsupported by its own reports and risks opening a dangerous new loophole for the U.S. and other nations to exploit.

Why it matters: The current trading system reflects American priorities — from intellectual property protections to rules that require science-based regulation of food safety — and has served the world well for decades. Short-term benefits for U.S. steel and aluminum firms will be offset by harm to other industries from a less stable trading environment governed by weakened norms.

In fact, WTO rules provide a different avenue that would protect these industries without undermining the trading system. Governments have agreed to “bind” their tariffs at or below a scheduled amount that varies by product.

These tariffs can be imposed to raise revenue or to protect domestic industry and can be renegotiated through a detailed and transparent set of procedures. In order to raise tariffs on particular products, the requesting government has to either offer lower tariffs on other products or allow its trading partners to raise some of their own tariffs.

The bottom line: There is a legal means to achieve Trump's ends, but instead the administration is opening up a loophole that cannot easily be contained, with “national security” providing thin cover for an escalating spiral of protectionism and retaliation by trading partners.

Simon Lester is an analyst at the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies.

Go deeper

10 mins ago - World

NYT: Biden won't immediately remove U.S. tariffs on China

President-elect Joe Biden during an event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Trump's 25% tariffs imposed on China under the phase one trade deal will remain in place at the start of the new administration, President-elect Biden said in an interview with the New York Times published early Wednesday.

Details: "I'm not going to make any immediate moves, and the same applies to the tariffs," Biden said. He plans to conduct a full review of the current U.S. policy on China and speak with key allies in Asia and Europe to "develop a coherent strategy," he said.

Trump threatens to veto Defense spending bill over social media shield

Photo: Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images

President Trump tweeted Tuesday a threat to veto a must-pass end-of-year $740 billion bill defense-spending authorization bill unless Congress repeals a federal law that protects social media sites from legal liability.

Why it matters: Trump's attempt to get Congress to end the tech industry protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is the latest escalation in his war on tech giants over what he and some other Republicans perceive as bias against conservatives.

The walls close in on Trump

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

With Bill Barr's "Et tu, Brute!" interview with AP, President Trump is watching the walls close in on his claims of fraud, hoaxes and conspiracies.

Why it matters: Trump and his legal team continue to claim election fraud. But the Republican governors of Arizona and Georgia have certified their elections, a loyalist like Barr has weighed in, and lower-ranking officials have taken potshots.