President Donald Trump said on Thursday he was sticking to his plans for 25 percent tariffs on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports but would have flexibility to change those for specific countries.
Trump is expected to delay the imposition of tariffs on Canada and Mexico to turn up the pressure in negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement. He said only that the reprieve remains in place for now and that NAFTA is important to economic and national security.
In making the long-awaited announcement Thursday, Trump says the US industry has been "ravaged by aggressive foreign trade practices".
The references to security are critical. The justification for the tariffs is on national security grounds, but that is unlikely to stop a number of nations from referring the matter to the WTO for adjudication. A provision in a 1962 US law allows the president to set emergency tariffs as a security issue.
The process of announcing the penalties has been the subject of an intense debate and chaotic exchanges within the White House, pitting hard-liners against free trade advocates such as outgoing economic adviser Gary Cohn aiming to add more flexibility for US trading partners.
The White House said Wednesday that Mexico, Canada and other countries may be spared from tariffs under national security "carve-outs".
At Thursday's signing ceremony, Mr Trump said: "Our greatest presidents from Washington, to Jackson, to Lincoln, to McKinley and others - they protected our country from outside influence, from other countries coming in and stealing our wealth and stealing our jobs and stealing our companies".
Two polls released this week say the tariffs are unpopular.
The European Union exported about 5.5 million tons of steel to the US past year.
Hong Kong, which has a busy port handling shipments moving between mainland China and the US, said it "regrets and disapproves" of the decision to impose tariffs.
The official insisted that was untrue.
After a week of hints and uncertainty, President Donald Trump is preparing to announce tariffs on imported steel and aluminum that would offer temporary exemptions to Canada and Mexico, a shift that could soften the blow amid threats of retaliation by trading partners. He did not explain how those round numbers managed to survive intact, even after the formula was later upended by the exclusion from tariffs of major suppliers.
Canada on Thursday (March 8) hailed the news it would not immediately be subject to United States tariffs on steel and aluminum while promising to continue lobbying Washington until the threat of duties had disappeared.
The fact that Canada might be included on the initial hit list had become a political sore spot for the administration, as US critics of the move ridiculed it by zeroing on the idea of national-security tariffs against a peaceful next-door neighbour and defence ally.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, appearing at a session with Home Depot employees in Atlanta, said ahead of Trump's announcement, "I'm just not a fan of broad-based, across-the-board tariffs".
Canada's ambassador to Washington dined this week with US national-security adviser H.R. McMaster; Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, and Transport Minister Marc Garneau all reached out to cabinet counterparts in recent days.
The move has caused consternation in segments of the ruling US Republican party.
"This has been a true Team Canada effort", said Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, also crediting provincial premiers, businesses and labour leaders.
Sources outside the White House say President Donald Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum imports will take effect in 15 days, with Canada and Mexico indefinitely excluded from the duties. "But a generalized tariff that would actually harm allies, harm American consumers, by the way, harm American workers that use steel in production, hurting their competitive nature in global markets as well, I'm opposed to that".
Other nations have threatened reprisals, and tensions are escalating. He said they need to contact USA trade czar Robert Lighthizer, and negotiate.