In blow to S.C. Gov. McMaster, Trump slaps tariffs on two state interests

In a blow to South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, President Donald Trump has imposed sanctions on two industries with big stakes in the state’s economy.

McMaster has spent the past several months heavily lobbying the administration for leniency in the two trade cases, expressing cautious optimism his ties to the president could help protect the state.

But Monday, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer announced that Trump had agreed with recommendations to slap tariffs on large residential washing machines imported by South Korea-based Samsung.

He also will put tariffs on solar panels brought into the United States. The decisions were based on findings that both industries had unfairly edged out domestic competitors.

“The President’s action makes clear again that the Trump administration will always defend American workers, farmers, ranchers, and businesses,” Lighthizer said in a statement. The president, who has long advocated an “America First” policy, is headed to Davos this week to attend trade talks.

McMaster and others have been arguing that the tariffs would actually take away American jobs.

Samsung recently opened a home appliance plant in Newberry, S.C., and affiliates with the manufacturing giant say tariffs could make it difficult for the new operation to stay viable. It has opened for business and hired more than 600 people with plans to employ as many as 1,000 by 2020. The company has also been working to forge research partnerships with Clemson University and the University of South Carolina.

A Samsung spokesperson would not discuss the company’s next steps, saying in a statement that “today’s announcement is a great loss for American consumers and workers.”

Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., who represents Newberry, told McClatchy Samsung president’s had told him this decision would “not bode well” for the company.

“I didn’t expect this to be the end result,” Norman said. “It’s a real setback, particularly since it’s after the fact” of the company’s opening.

The solar industry, the other target of Monday’s ruling, has boomed in South Carolina. There are concerns that tariffs on imported solar panels could stall this growth by making panels more difficult to afford.

The only manufacturers that can provide panels by the thousands — the number needed to set up solar farms — are companies overseas in places like Taiwan, Malaysia and China.

Southern Current, which has 80 utility-scale solar projects planned for South Carolina, now has nowhere stateside to buy the 72-cell solar panels it needs, said Bret Sowers, vice president of development and strategy.

"We just put a tariff on a product that we can't even buy in the United State," Sowers said.

“It's going to put a growing industry in South Carolina not on halt, but it's going to hurt its development efforts," he continued, adding that the state’s need for low-cost energy is even more critical in the wake of two local utilities’ failures to build two nuclear reactor sites.

McMaster’s spokesman, Brian Symmes, said in a statement the governor was “obviously disappointed” by Trump’s decision.

“As he has said time and time again, when it comes to fighting for South Carolina jobs and businesses, he’s going to do it at each and every opportunity — for companies already here and those looking to locate here,” said Symmes.

While McMaster never promised a happy ending for these industries, he made no secret he was fighting hard.

Since last fall, McMaster has made frequent trips to Washington to speak out against the tariffs. He testified on multiple occasions before the International Trade Commission, which made the recommendations for economic sanctions to Trump.

He arranged meetings with high-ranking officials within the Trump administration, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who was on hand last year to celebrate the announcement that Samsung would be opening business in Newberry.

McMaster told McClatchy that these meetings were in part made possible by his ties to Trump, who he got to know during the 2016 presidential campaign. McMaster, then the state’s lieutenant governor, was one of the first highest-ranking elected officials to endorse Trump ahead of the pivotal South Carolina GOP primary.

Trump rewarded McMaster with a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention — McMaster delivered a nominating speech — and came to Greenville, S.C., to campaign for the governor’s election campaign this past fall. McMaster became governor when Nikki Haley became U.N. Ambassador in early 2017. He’s now facing a competitive primary to win a full term in 2018.

At his fundraiser in Greenville in October, McMaster facilitated meet-and-greets for Trump with representatives from Samsung and state solar power companies at a VIP reception for some of the governor’s most generous donors.

The efforts, however, fell short.

Jamie Self from The State contributed to this report.

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain