House GOP signals break with Trump over tariff threat

WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders — in a major policy break with President-elect Donald Trump — signaled Monday that they would not support his threat to impose a heavy tax on companies that move jobs overseas, the first significant confrontation over conservative economic orthodoxy that Trump relishes trampling.

“I don’t want to get into some kind of trade war,” Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, the majority leader, told reporters in response to Trump’s threats over the weekend to seek a 35 percent import tariff on goods sold by US companies that move jobs overseas and displace American workers.

Speaker Paul Ryan also pushed back against Trump on Monday in an interview with a Wisconsin reporter, saying an overhaul of the corporate tax code would more effectively keep companies in the United States than tax penalties.


“I think we can get at the goal here,” he said, “which is to keep American businesses American, build things in America and sell them overseas, that can be properly addressed with comprehensive tax reform.”

In a separate decision that put him at odds with some in Congress, Trump on Monday chose retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson to be secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The choice drew criticism from Democrats, who questioned Carson’s qualifications.

Trump’s economic positions clashed with traditional conservatives during the campaign, but now these differences — on trade, government spending on infrastructure, and tax policies — set the incoming president on a perilous course with the lawmakers whose support he needs to keep his agenda on track.

“There will be a tax on our soon to be strong border of 35 percent for these companies wanting to sell their product, cars, A.C. units etc., back across the border,” Trump said in a series of Twitter messages over the weekend.


The response from Republican leaders underscored the limits of legislating 140 characters at a time on Twitter, and gave Democrats cause to believe they can work with Trump to outmaneuver congressional Republicans.

“The president-elect won in part by campaigning against the Republican establishment on many economic issues,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the incoming Democratic leader. “If he wants to get something done for working families in this country, he’ll have to stand up to them when it comes time to govern too.”

Trump first startled Republicans during the campaign when he attacked trade deals, putting himself more in line with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont than Ryan.

He repeatedly insisted that trade deals had displaced American workers and harmed the economy, upending two centuries of American economic policies that proclaimed trade as a good thing, a position that Republicans have pushed in recent decades.

His positions helped imperil President Obama’s trade pact with Asian nations — the Trans-Pacific Partnership — and stop further trade negotiations, which many experts in both parties believe limits the United States in its economic position against China.

“I respect President-elect Trump for fulfilling his campaign promise to withdraw from TPP,” Representative Kevin Brady, Republican of Texas, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, said shortly after the election. “We can’t abandon these markets to China and other competitors because American businesses and customers will lose out,” he added.

Trump’s choice of Carson to head HUD raised fresh concerns about the lack of experience some of Trump’s Cabinet picks have with agencies they are now being chosen to lead.


Carson, who opposed Trump in the Republican primaries, has no background in government or running a large bureaucracy.

In addition, Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Trump’s choice to be ambassador to the United Nations, has no foreign policy experience. Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s man to lead the Treasury Department, has worked in the finance industry but never in government.

Democrats swiftly criticized Carson’s qualifications.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called him a ‘‘disconcerting and disturbingly unqualified choice.’’ And Schumer said he had ‘‘serious concerns about Dr. Carson’s lack of expertise and experience in dealing with housing issues. Someone who is as antigovernment as him is a strange fit for housing secretary, to say the least.’’

Carson would oversee a budget of nearly $50 billion that provides rental assistance for more than 5 million households. Demand for that assistance is high in part because housing costs are rising faster than incomes.

On Monday, Trump also received a fresh stream of visitors to his New York skyscraper. His most surprising guest was Al Gore, the former Democratic vice president whose signature issue is climate change.

Gore said the two had a ‘‘very productive’’ conversation but offered no details.