WASHINGTON — President Trump is expected to formally sign off on stiff and sweeping tariffs on steel and aluminum imports Thursday, capitalizing on the pending departure of his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, who was the plan’s primary opponent.
But as advisers readied for an announcement, the White House appeared to open the door to making the policy less Draconian, saying Wednesday that close allies could be exempted.
“There are potential carve-outs for Mexico and Canada, based on national security and possibly other countries as well,’’ said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.
Trump initially said the tariffs would be same for all countries, but he and other administration officials have also said there will be exceptions for nations that meet certain tests.
The president plans to sign his order at noon Thursday, according to people familiar with the deliberations, but the measures may not go into effect immediately.
Under the statute that gives Trump authority to impose the measure, he has up to 15 days to take action. That period could give countries or companies a chance to submit input and try to sway the administration’s plan, the sources said.
The White House said the plan calls for tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports, but it has flexible language that would allow Trump to approve exemptions for certain countries.
‘‘He’s already indicated a degree of flexibility, I think a very sensible, very balanced degree of flexibility,’’ Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC. ‘‘We’re not trying to blow up the world.’’
The US trade deficit — the gap between what America sells and what it buys abroad — rose in January to the highest level since October 2008.
The Commerce Department said Wednesday that the deficit rose to $56.6 billion in January, up 5 percent from $53.9 billion in December and the highest since October 2008’s $60.2 billion trade gap.
The trade deficit has risen for five straight months.
The S&P 500 index ended the day little changed after falling as much as 1 percent during a session Wednesday. Investors spooked by the departure of Cohn appeared to take comfort from administration comments that the tariff policy has not been finalized.
While congressional Republicans and business groups have been warning against the effects of protectionist trade actions, some Trump advisers have urged the president to follow through with the protectionist pledges he made during his campaign.
Those advisers include Peter Navarro, a trade skeptic who had been sidelined by Cohn. He has been promised a promotion and made the rounds on Sunday talk shows to promote Trump’s trade policy.
Others backing the policy are Ross, who oversaw an investigation that led to tariffs, and Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative and a trusted adviser to the president.
Trump signaled that other trade actions might be in the works.
In a tweet, he said the United States ‘‘is acting swiftly on intellectual property theft.’’ A White House official said Trump was referring an ongoing investigation of China in which the US trade representative is studying whether Chinese intellectual property rules are ‘‘unreasonable or discriminatory’’ to American business, the Associated Press reported.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said an announcement on the findings of the report — and possible retaliatory actions — is expected within the next three weeks.
Business leaders continued to sound the alarm about the potential economic fallout from tariffs, with Tom Donohue, the head of the US Chamber of Commerce, raising the specter of a global trade war. That outcome, he said, would endanger the economic momentum from the GOP tax cuts and Trump’s rollback of regulations.
The president has said the tariffs are needed to reinforce lagging American steel and aluminum industries and protect national security. He has tried to use the tariffs as leverage in ongoing talks to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement, suggesting Canada and Mexico might be exempted from tariffs if they offer more favorable terms under NAFTA.
Lawmakers opposed to the tariffs, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, have warned that allies such as Canada and members of the European Union would retaliate.
They have suggested more narrowly focused approaches to target Chinese imports. But members of Congress have few means at their disposal to counter the president, who has vowed to fulfill his campaign pledge.
‘‘I don’t think the president is going to be easily deterred,’’ said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, who has suggested hearings on the tariffs.
Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, said Trump had listened to him and others who disagree with the direction of the trade policies. “The difficulty is so far I haven’t persuaded him,’’ Alexander said.