What has happened to ‘Buy American’ and free trade in Trump World?

What has happened to implementation of the “Buy American” Act of 1933 and the “Improvement” Act of 2017 co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut? These Acts were intended to protect from foreign competition the U.S. manufacture of certain goods and materials, notably those critical to our national defense.

How is it that many critically needed parts for our U.S. military helicopters are still imported from Italy and other foreign countries? Why does the U.S. Defense Department continue to buy rocket propellant from China? Why would the U.S. Administration not object to the hostile takeover of America’s primary computer chip maker by a foreign corporation? Why the complete inaction and silence from the White House on these threats to our national security ? 

Shouldn’t the U.S. taxpayer-subsidized Army and Navy Post Exchanges (PXs) buy clothing and other articles that are “Made in America”? I’m not necessarily talking about Trump-brand dresses, suits and ties, all made in China and other foreign countries. But didn’t President Trump sign an Executive Order on buying American? Shouldn’t jobs first go to long-standing American citizens? How is it that over half the new service jobs at Mar-a-Lago have been filled by immigrants, mainly from Central Europe?  

President Trump still touts the Keystone Pipeline. Most of the needed steel pipes for the pipeline have already been manufactured by foreign companies benefitting from a White House exemption from “Buy American.” Foremost among these is a Russian steel company owned by a Russian billionaire close to Trump. Why the favored treatment of Putin’s Russia? Meanwhile, steel imports into the United States have risen by 24 percent in 2017.

Pressed by domestic U.S. steel corporations, President Trump, seemingly without prior thought or analysis, suddenly announced that  he would slap  a 25-percent duty on steel imports and a 10-percent tariff on aluminum imports. In principle, the new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports would be applicable to imports from  any and all countries. Leakers in the White House, however, alleged that, once again, Russia would be exempted from the president’s order. If so, this ignores the facts that: (1) Russia is the number seven exporter of steel to the U.S.; and (2) Russia is the number two exporter of aluminum to the U.S. Why the tariff exemption for Russia?

When the U.S. stock market and the international community reacted with alarm to this unilateral tariff announcement, Trump countered: “Trade wars are good and easy to win.”  Immediately Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, quit the White House. Neither he nor anyone else had been consulted prior to Trump’s sudden off-the-cuff announcement. Trump persisted, and split his own Republican Party over the issue. Then, under pressure from Congressional leaders and other adversely affected US corporations, President Trump, with the consistency of a bowl full of jelly, backed off.  He announced he “wasn’t quite ready” to sign the tariff order after all. Then, in March, Trump flipped again and suddenly signed a new tariff order, this time exempting Canada and Mexico. But he has said nothing about Russia? So, where are we on “Buy American,” tariffs and “free trade” in Trump World? Who knows what he’ll do tomorrow?

Trump still says he wants to scrap most existing multilateral trade agreements, namely NAFTA, CAFTA and the TPP.  He proffers all the wrong reasons. The real problem with these “free” trade agreements is one that Trump fails to see or understand. The agreements purport to empower  a panel of judges (usually consisting of three rotating corporate lawyers) to override national laws they consider to be “in restraint of trade.” Examples include national laws (a) banning smoking in public places, (b) requiring labeling of country of origin of meat products, and (c) requiring use of “dolphin-free” fishing nets. These “free” trade panels violate the U.S. Constitution, which asserts that Congress and only Congress can repeal U.S. laws previously adopted by Congress.  We need multilateral trade agreements;  we just don’t need the unconstitutional panels.    

Rather than spend time on divisive political wrangling over so-called “Free Trade” agreements and steel and aluminum tariffs, isn’t it about time actually to implement and enforce the  “Free Trade” and “Buy American” policies, rules and laws we already have, at least when it comes to national security?  The Made in the USA Foundation in Los Angeles (Chairman@MadeUSAFdn.org) is urging exactly that. 

Let’s all join up. Just because the White House is in a state of unbelievable chaos and ineptitude, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to stay quiet and give up.


Anthony Piel is a former director and general legal counsel of the World Health Organization.