Trump’s budget chief is trying to protect his home state from tariffs

President Donald Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, is trying to use his influence to help a South Carolina business that could be badly wounded by the White House’s trade policies.

Mulvaney, a former South Carolina Republican congressman, has been making personal pleas to administration officials to protect the viability of Element Electronics, a television assembly plant in his old district that has said it will halt operations because of tariffs.

In a bid to get fairer trade deals for the United States, Trump is imposing and proposing tariffs on a wide swath of imported parts and supplies crucial to making domestic goods. Element says new tariffs on a television assembly part made in China would threaten its existence.

An official with the White House Office of Management and Budget would not comment on Mulvaney’s advocacy for Element, saying the office “do(es) not comment on internal deliberative processes.”

But South Carolina State Sen. Mike Fanning, a Democrat who represents Fairfield County where Element is headquartered, said Mulvaney’s involvement is well known.

“I know that he is actively pleading on our behalf, because people we’ve talked to in D.C., they say, ‘Yes, yes, yes, we’ve already heard this from Mick Mulvaney,’” said Fanning.

He spoke to Mulvaney by phone on August 6, after Element became the first South Carolina business to announce it would close its doors because of tariffs.

“Mick has been an advocate from day one,” said Rep. Ralph Norman, the Republican elected to represent the 5th Congressional District after Mulvaney was confirmed to run the budget office last year. “He was trying to get (tariff) exclusions well ahead of the announcement. He was trying to get the White House to take a look at it, at least look at it.”

Fanning said a coalition of South Carolina elected officials will support Element’s formal appeal with the U.S. Department of Commerce on Tuesday. This petition will request the administration exclude a specific television assembly component from being subjected to new tariffs.

Element has said this component, made only in China, will soon become too expensive to import, and unless the component gets a tariff reprieve, the plant will have to fire 126 employees by early October.

Mulvaney, who has also been serving as interim director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has been fighting a similar fight on Element’s behalf.

Mulvaney has not made it a secret he has concerns about some of Trump’s tactics for encouraging better trade deals with China, Mexico, Canada and the European Union. This is perhaps the first time, however, that Mulvaney has sought to lobby for a state interest from his position of power in Washington.

Since becoming budget director in February 2017, Mulvaney has either been reluctant or unable to intervene on behalf of parochial interests, even those he championed as a member of Congress. Former associates have grumbled about his inability to help steer more money towards the Charleston Harbor deepening project, or protect a plutonium reprocessing initiative in Aiken from threats of cancellation.

Element Electronics, however, is personal to Mulvaney. The plant announced it would break ground in Winnsboro, South Carolina in 2013, when Mulvaney was a second-term congressman. He was not responsible for Element’s arrival — then-Gov. Nikki Haley, who is now the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, took credit for the facility’s recruitment — but he did eventually become close friends with Element President Michael O’Shaughnessy.

Element officials were not reachable for comment.

O’Shaughnessy was actually lobbying Mulvaney to fight for certain tariff exemptions that would help Element in 2016, months before the presidential election.

At the time, Mulvaney told Reuters he faced hurdles in convincing colleagues on Capitol Hill that the exclusions wouldn’t be tantamount to “earmarks” — the much-aligned, and now forbidden, practice of securing financial assistance for member pet projects in pieces of legislation.

“Element makes clear the real world implications of these trade deals we have signed,” Mulvaney said, adding he supported a “review” of the North American Free Trade Agreement, another priority of Trump’s.

Federal Election Commission reports show that O’Shaughnessy contributed $5,400 to Mulvaney’s congressional campaign account in 2016.

Mulvaney could be lobbying not just for an old friend but in support of his beleaguered home turf. Element’s impending closure is dealing the latest in a series of blows to the 5th District’s economy.

Last summer, plans were scrapped to build two nuclear reactors put 5,000 people out of work. Fairfield County’s last textile mill also closed, eliminating another 200 jobs.

Avery G. Wilks of The State contributed to this report.
Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain