South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster got no sense from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Monday as to whether the White House would protect a local plant from possible White House economic sanctions.
The Republican governor has 60 days to convince President Donald Trump and his inner circle to spare the manufacturing giant Samsung from tariffs on imported large residential washing machines.
McMaster told McClatchy in an interview that Ross did not betray which way he, Trump or others in the administration were leaning regarding whether to punish Samsung, which is poised to start making washing machines in Newberry, S.C., in January.
“He was asking questions,” McMaster said of Ross. “He gave no indication on what (Trump) would do, other than say he would speak to the president. He noted the president is out of town but he would speak to him promptly, which is what we wanted him to do.”
The Commerce Department could not be reached for comment.
Ross was joined by three senior members of his staff, according to McMaster, including Peter Krug, associate director for intergovernmental affairs, and Michael Platt, assistant secretary for legislation and intergovernmental affairs. The meeting came four days after McMaster sent Trump a letter directly imploring him for leniency in deciding Samsung’s fate, which could in turn impact the manufacturer’s ability to make further investments in South Carolina.
Headquartered in South Korea, Samsung has been accused of squashing competition from domestic washing machine producers such as Whirlpool by importing goods and parts from abroad for U.S. sales at cheaper prices. The International Trade Commission is recommending Trump slap Samsung with three years of tariffs on washer imports exceeding 1.2 million units.
If Trump sides with Whirlpool, it would be in keeping with the his 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. If he sides with Samsung, it could send a strong message that he supports foreign companies making investments in the United States to boost jobs and build local economies.
If Trump opts to ignore all recommendations for Samsung sanctions, McMaster could claim some credit as a dealmaker with connections to the administration in the midst of a competitive race to win the 2018 governor’s race.
McMaster was the first high-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 an audience of donors.
In addition to Haley, the South Carolina presence in the Trump administration is sizable, giving McMaster more avenues to advocate for the state’s interests. Former South Carolina GOP Rep. Mick Mulvaney is now director of the Office of Management and Budget and was recently also named interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
And Ed McMullen, Trump’s South Carolina campaign chairman and member of the presidential transition team, was sworn in Monday as the next ambassador to Switzerland. McMaster attended the ceremony at the White House along with Vice President Mike Pence and others with clout.
If McMaster isn’t able to capitalize on just his connections to the administration, he in the very least has Trump and Ross on the record supporting the Samsung investment in South Carolina.
In his Nov. 30 letter to Trump, McMaster reminded the president that he personally tweeted a welcome message to Samsung earlier this year upon the announcement it would start making products in the United States. In June, Ross joined him at a press conference to celebrate the news that Samsung would be opening up a plant in Newberry.
McMaster told McClatchy that he would continue to lobby the administration in the days ahead.
“There will be further meetings,” McMaster said. “I expect to hear something back from Secretary Ross, and the Samsung representatives are discussing the situation with their contacts among these agencies and we are scheduling additional meetings for me, for us, in South Carolina now ... I’ve told Samsung as well as others that we will do whatever it takes.”