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Accusations fly as firms seek to avoid Trump’s steel tariff

By RICHARD LARDNER
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. companies seeking to be exempted from President Donald Trump’s tariff on imported steel are accusing American steel manufacturers of spreading inaccurate and misleading information, which they fear could torpedo their exemption requests.

Robert Miller, president and CEO of NLMK USA, said objections raised by U.S. Steel and Nucor to his bid for a waiver are “literal untruths.” He said his company, which imports huge slabs of steel from Russia, has already paid $80 million worth of duties and will be forced out of business if it isn’t excused from the 25 percent tariff. U.S. Steel and Nucor are two of the country’s largest steel producers.

“They ought to be ashamed of themselves,” said Miller, who employs more than 1,100 people at mills in Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Miller’s resentment, echoed by several other executives, is evidence of the backlash over how the Commerce Department is evaluating companies’ requests to avoid the duty on steel imports. In general, business executives fear the agency will be swayed by opposition from U.S. Steel, Nucor and other domestic steel suppliers, which say they’ve been unfairly harmed by a glut of imports and back Trump’s tariff.

U.S. Steel said its objections come in response to detailed information about the dimensions and chemistry of the steel included in the requests. “We read what is publicly posted and respond,” said Meghan Cox, a spokeswoman for the company. Nucor did not reply to requests for comment.

The 20,000-plus waiver applications that the Commerce Department has received illustrate the chaos and uncertainty ignited by Trump’s trade war against American allies and adversaries. It’s a battle that critics of his trade policies, including a number of Republican lawmakers, have warned is misguided and will end up harming U.S. businesses.

Trump and European leaders agreed this past Wednesday not to escalate their dispute over trade, but the tariff on steel and a separate duty on aluminum imports remain in place as the U.S. and Europe aim for a broader trade agreement. The metal taxes would continue to hit U.S. trading partners such as Canada, Mexico and Japan even if the U.S. and the EU reach a deal.

Miller bristled over the insistence of Nucor and U.S. Steel that steel slab is available in the United States. “That’s just not true,” he said.

His company isn’t the only one looking overseas for a product described as being consistently in short supply.

California Steel Industries, a mill east of Los Angeles in Fontana, described the slab shortage as “acute” on the West Coast and declared that its waiver request is critical to its survival.

Aiming to rebuild the U.S. steel industry, Trump relied on a rarely used law, passed in 1962, that empowers him to impose tariffs on particular imports if the Commerce Department finds those goods threaten national security. He added a twist: Companies could be excused from the tariff if they could show, for example, that U.S. manufacturers don’t make the metal they need in sufficient quantities.

But there are hurdles to clear on the path to securing an exemption. A single company may have to file dozens of separate requests to account for even slight variations in the metal it’s buying. That means there’s a mountain of paperwork that has to be filled out precisely. If not, a request is at risk of being rejected for being incomplete. Complying with all this can take a lot of time and money, especially for small businesses.

Requests of this sort are open to objections. The Commerce Department posts the exemption requests online to allow third parties to offer comments — even if they are competitors who have an interest in seeing a rival’s request denied. And objections are frequently submitted just as a comment period is closing, undercutting a requester’s ability to respond.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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