The Trump administration is “playing a game of Russian Roulette” with potential plans to impose steep tariffs on imported cars and auto parts, says U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a North Charleston Republican who said he fears the tariffs would hurt his state.
Scott said he believes President Donald Trump has used some economic sanctions “artfully.” But as part of a meeting with a small group of Republican senators at the White House last week, Scott said he told the president directly that slapping tariffs of up to 25% on imported cars and parts from Europe could “ultimately harm South Carolina’s economy.”
Scott is a lawmaker known for being a team player and for picking and choosing his battles carefully. His decision to register his strong disapproval — in such stark terms, with the leader of his party — speaks to his sense of urgency.
Trump is set to decide soon, possibly in a matter of days, whether to impose these tariffs under so-called “Section 232 authority,” which he and members of his economic team believe could motivate international partners to come to the table and agree to a better trade deal for the United States.
Critics, like Scott, think it could simply prompt foreign companies to move jobs elsewhere.
“I think we jeopardize 80 thousand vehicles that could be made in China as opposed to in Spartanburg,” Scott told McClatchy, recalling what he told Trump at the meeting. “That is what I sold him on and told him and did my best to make sure he understood my concerns and why ‘fear’ and ‘trepidation’ should be synonyms to 232 auto tariffs.”
South Carolina is home to foreign car manufacturing plants, suppliers and dealers. In 2017, the economic activity of international automakers in the state generated $749 million in revenue and 70,457 jobs, according to the trade association Global Automakers.
Scott mentioned Mercedez-Benz in Ladson and Volvo in Ridgeville as among the European car companies in South Carolina that could be affected by new tariffs, but said he spoke to Trump primarily about BMW, the German automobile manufacturer that several years ago chose Greer as the site of the company’s largest plant. It currently employs nearly 11,000 people.
Phil DiIanni, a BMW spokesman, said in a statement to McClatchy the company had no immediate plans to leave South Carolina.
“However,” DiIanni added, “if the threat of tariffs persists or should the threatened tariffs take effect and undermine the competitiveness of BMW in the U.S., the result could have negative effects on our investments in the U.S.”
Scott was careful not to portray a sense of alarm or anxiety on the ground in South Carolina, but conceded those affiliated with the state’s automobile industry “are very concerned.”
Ted Pitts, president of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, was also circumspect in an interview with McClatchy, acknowledging that he was hearing “concerns” from “a varying group of companies that are involved in the automotive sector” in South Carolina.
“No company is going to announce they’re moving jobs or doing something different directly because of jobs. They’re not going to do that,” Pitts said. “But I think it’s apparent that specifically South Carolina has been a winner in the automotive space when it comes to open markets that allow for goods to be made in-state and shipped to other countries. We’ve been a winner.
“If (a company) can manufacture products in another place, where there’s not a tariff placed on it ... obviously businesses will make a decision based on a lot of things, but the bottom line is one of the things,” he continued. “I’m hopeful the administration has gotten the message loud and clear that, yes, there are bad actors in the trade environment, and we need to deal with those bad actors, but in certain cases, applying those tariffs would be bad for American jobs.”
Pitts also said that members of the South Carolina Congressional delegation were taking different tacks when it came to exerting pressure on the administration to back off on imposing the auto tariffs.
While Scott, a member of the Senate Finance Committee with some jurisdiction over trade policy, is making his case to Trump directly, others are trying not to be appear too confrontational.
On Wednesday, five of the seven members of the South Carolina U.S. House delegation signed on to a bipartisan letter urging the administration to “avoid trade restrictions that would negatively impact the U.S. auto sector and undermine our economic security.” Along with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, both S.C. Democrats, Republican signers from South Carolina included U.S. Reps. Jeff Duncan, Ralph Norman and William Timmons.
In an interview with McClatchy on Thursday, Timmons — whose district includes Greer, home to BMW — said simply he hoped the Trump administration could reach a trade deal “quickly” to make tariffs a moot point.
“I want BMW to be as competitive as possible and those tariffs are a challenge, and (Trump) is using them as a tool in his ultimate objective of re-negotiating our international trade agreements,” Timmons said. “I understand the purpose of them, so while I would like for BMW to be able to conduct themselves with more certainty, I understand the president’s use of them. I would prefer this end quickly.”