S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster personally appeals to Trump to protect local plant

President Donald Trump stands on the tarmac with South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster as he arrives on Air Force One at Greenville Spartanburg International Airport, in Greer, S.C., in October for a fundraiser for McMaster.
President Donald Trump stands on the tarmac with South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster as he arrives on Air Force One at Greenville Spartanburg International Airport, in Greer, S.C., in October for a fundraiser for McMaster. AP

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has written to President Donald Trump in a personal appeal to reject recommendations to penalize Samsung, the South Korea-based home appliance manufacturing giant preparing to open a major plant in the Palmetto State.

In a Nov. 30 letter obtained by McClatchy, McMaster, a Republican, said South Carolina could help Trump “cement (his) legacy as America’s Greatest Jobs President” if the Samsung plant in Newberry can proceed without interference.

“South Carolina has a rich history of attracting foreign direct investment, and with the support of your ‘America First’ trade agenda, there is no limit to South Carolina’s potential,” McMaster wrote. “South Carolina stands ready to serve as a shining example of your commitment to rebuilding our American manufacturing base.”

The International Trade Commission voted before Thanksgiving to recommend slapping Samsung with three years of tariffs on imports of large residential washing machines exceeding 1.2 million units — punishment for the company’s alleged squashing of domestic competitor Whirlpool by importing goods and parts from abroad for U.S. sales at cheaper prices.

Trump now has to decide whether to impose these sanctions, which many fear could force Samsung to scrap plans to proceed with its forthcoming Newberry, South Carolina plant on track to employ more than 1,000 workers.

Siding with Whirlpool would be in keeping with the president’s promises to promote American manufacturing at all costs, particularly in the midst of his administration’s negotiations of possible revisions to the North America Free Trade Agreement.

Siding with Samsung, however, would send a strong message that he supports foreign companies making investments in the United States to boost jobs and build local economies.

How Trump responds could ultimately be a case study not only in his approach to trade policy, but as a test of his loyalty to his friends and allies.

McMaster was the first highest-ranking elected official to endorse Trump for president, and did so in the pivotal days leading up to the South Carolina presidential primary. Then the lieutenant governor, McMaster went on to deliver a nominating speech for Trump at the Republican National Convention.

After his election, Trump was seen as helping return the favor by elevating then-Gov. Nikki Haley to U.N. Ambassador, facilitating McMaster’s ascendance. Trump returned to South Carolina in October to appear at a McMaster campaign fundraiser, where he actually met with Samsung leadership and praised the manufacturer’s televisions to a crowd of donors.

McMaster did not make many references in his letter to his longstanding ties to Trump, other than to conclude by saying he and his wife “hope to see you and yours again very soon.”

He did, however, make several references to Trump’s past statements in support of Samsung and his administration’s role in bringing the company to South Carolina, perhaps a way of painting the president into a corner.

“In February, you encouraged Samsung to build a home appliance factory in the United States, tweeting: ‘Thank you, Samsung! We would love to have you!’” McMaster wrote. “Your team then worked with Samsung in the subsequent months. In June, I stood with (Commerce Secretary Wilbur) Ross at our Washington press conference as Samsung committed to moving operations from Southeast Asia and building a $400 million plant with 1,000 employees in Newberry.”

In his letter, McMaster laid out a case for compassion. If Trump insisted on taking the ITC recommendations, McMaster asked that he at least adopt the more lenient of two proposals put forward — one that would only impose tariffs on imports exceeding the 1.2 million unit quota. An alternative ITC recommendation suggested instituting a tariff on exports below the 1.2 million unit mark, too.

He also asked Trump to exclude Samsung’s new “FlexWash” washing machine from any new tariffs.

The ITC must formally submit recommendations to Trump by Monday, and Trump could chose whether or not to implement them at any time. It’s likely McMaster will continue to apply pressure, and members of the South Carolina Congressional delegation, led by Newberry’s congressman, Republican Rep. Ralph Norman, have signaled they will lobby the White House, too.

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain