President Donald Trump is using national security to kowtow to an industry in a conundrum. In April, the administration opened an investigation into the impact of imported steel and aluminum that is expected to result in tariffs or quotas on imports of these important metals. The probe fits with Trump’s core trade pledge to shake up the old order while trumpeting “America First.” But proving metal imports pose a national security threat will be a considerable challenge.
Although much of the focus has been on steel, the ramifications for aluminum are also significant and could have broad repercussions for many other industries and for the U.S. economy as a whole. The amount of aluminum consumed by the U.S. military is insignificant in the scope of the total. Most of the metal imported by the U.S. comes from nations such as China and Canada, and typically serves civilian uses for automobiles, packing, roofing, road signs and consumer durables, none of which implicate national security.
Under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, a president is authorized to impose import restrictions to protect U.S. national security; yet this power has rarely been invoked. Trump has exhumed Section 232 from the law and instructed aides to devise options for implementing it.
The act does not define the term “national security,” and that gives the president wide latitude to define a threat. Commerce has indicated in past Section 232 investigations that a danger can arise either “by fostering U.S. dependence on unreliable or unsafe imports” or “by fundamentally threatening the ability of U.S. domestic industries to satisfy national security needs.” Yet the current administration is even factoring employment into the definition along with other non-military concerns.
Since the Trade Expansion Act’s passage, there have been 26 investigations with just two leading to import restrictions, both on crude oil, from Iran in 1979 and from Libya in 1982. In the most recent case, in 2001, Commerce investigated iron ore and semi‐finished steel but determined that imports did not threaten national security.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that part of the rationale for the probe was to determine whether domestic manufacturers might be incapable of meeting the Pentagon’s needs in the event of a war. U.S. combat aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 joint…