President Trump signed an executive order on Thursday launching an investigation into whether certain steel imports from countries like China affect national security.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will lead the wide-ranging investigation that would more broadly evaluate countries and products for any evidence of harm to the U.S. steel industry.
"We’re groping here to see whether the facts warrant a more comprehensive solution that would deal with a wide range of steel products and wide range of countries,” Ross told reporters.
Trump highlighted issues around steel during his campaign, arguing that foreign countries were dumping vast amounts of steel into the United States, which he has said is eliminating jobs and hurting steel companies.
“Maintaining the production of American steel is extremely important to our national security and our defense industrial base,” Trump said during the executive memorandum signing in the Oval Office.
“Steel is critical to both our economy and our military. This is not an area where we can afford to become dependent on foreign countries,” he said.
During the signing, Trump was asked how the policy would affect U.S. dealings with China on North Korea, to which he responded: “This has nothing to do with China. This has to do with worldwide, what’s happening. The dumping problem is a worldwide problem."
The domestic industry is operating at 71 percent capacity, with foreign imports accounting for 26 percent, Ross said.
"There clearly is room for an increase in production in the United States," Ross said.
Under section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act, Ross has 270 days to produce recommendations for the White House. After that, the president would have another 90 days to determine whether any changes are warranted.
But Trump said that the investigation could expedited and completed within 50 days.
“Steel imports, despite the activities we’ve already had on countervailing duties and antidumping, have continued to rise, despite repeated Chinese claims that they were going to reduce their steel capacity, when instead they have actually been increasing it consistently,” Ross told reporters.
“In the first couple months of this year alone, steel imports rose 19.6 percent year over year and are now more than 26 percent of the entire U.S. marketplace. So it’s a very serious impact on the domestic industry.”
Surrounded by steel industry representatives, the president called the signing of the memorandum a "historic day for American steel," saying his administration would “fight for American workers and American-made steel, and that’s beginning immediately.”
Thomas Gibson, president and CEO of the American Iron and Steel Institute, said that global steel overcapacity has led to the loss of nearly 14,000 jobs.
“The administration launching this investigation is an impactful way to help address the serious threat posed by these unfair foreign trade practices, and we applaud this bold action," Gibson said.
“The domestic steel industry is the backbone of our manufacturing sector, and our continued ability to meet our national security needs is dependent on the industry remaining competitive in the global marketplace," he said.
In 2001, the last time the Commerce Department looked at the issue, no national security threat was found to be created by steel imports.
Democrats on Capitol Hill expressed support for the move.
Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod BrownDems crowd primaries to challenge GOP reps Battle begins over Wall Street rules Congress nears deal on help for miners MORE (D-Ohio) called the announcement “an important step toward addressing the impact of unfair steel imports on our national security.”
“I’m pleased the administration is willing to consider trade enforcement tools that haven’t been used in more than 15 years," he said.
"But this investigation won’t mean much to Ohio steel companies and steelworkers unless it is followed by tough action that addresses China’s overcapacity and stops the flood of unfairly traded steel imports from coming into our market.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said that “while today’s executive order to investigate potential national security vulnerabilities due to steel imports is a step forward, I will hold the administration accountable on its promises to fight for working Americans."
“The hundreds of thousands of workers and communities in America who depend upon the steel industry deserve real enforcement of our laws to hold bad actors accountable," she said.