August 24, 2017 / 5:33 PM / 4 months ago

Exclusive: U.S. steel executives appeal directly to Trump for import restrictions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - American steel industry executives have appealed directly to President Donald Trump for immediate import restrictions in a letter seen by Reuters, as a U.S. Commerce Department national security probe languishes and steel imports surge back to 2015 levels.

U.S. President Donald Trump walks from Air Force One as he arrives at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Senior executives from 25 U.S. steel and steel-related companies sent the letter to Trump late on Wednesday, saying the industry was suffering the consequences of government inaction that could change with his “bold leadership” and “America First” vision.

“The need for action is urgent. Since the 232 investigation was announced in April, imports have continued to surge,” the executives said in the letter.

“Immediate action must meaningfully adjust imports to restore healthy levels of capacity utilization and profitability to the domestic industry over a sustained period,” they wrote.

A White House spokeswoman said she could not immediately comment on the letter.

The Commerce Department has delayed the release of its recommendations from a “Section 232” investigation into whether steel imports pose a threat to national security, a finding that could lead to Trump imposing broad quotas or tariffs on steel imports.

The American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), an industry trade group, reported on Wednesday that total steel imports through July this year were up 22 percent from the same period a year ago, with imports taking 28 percent of the U.S. market.

Imports captured 30 percent of the U.S. market in June, according to Commerce Department data compiled by the institute. Steel imports dipped briefly last year because of Commerce Department anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties imposed on steel products from China and some other countries.

The letter followed last week’s departure of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who had been a vocal advocate for steel tariffs and other trade protections in the administration’s internal debates over trade.

‘SOONER RATHER THAN LATER’

The executives from companies including Nucor Corp NUE.N U.S. Steel X.N, ArcelorMittal MT.AS and Commercial Metals Co CMC.N said the sustained surge of steel imports into the United States had “hollowed out” much of the domestic steel industry and was threatening its ability to meet national security needs.

“Your leadership in finding a solution to the crisis facing the steel industry is badly needed now. Only you can authorize actions that can solve this crisis and we are asking for your immediate assistance,” they wrote.

Under the Cold War-era law authorizing the steel national security probe, Trump would have 90 days to act once the Commerce Department submits its probe.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had set an internal deadline for announcing his steel recommendations at the end of June, but it was delayed for a G20 summit and bilateral talks with China in July. Trump said later that month a final decision may wait until other top priority issues on his agenda are addressed, including healthcare and taxes.

The steel executives are concerned that the Commerce report could be delayed further, pushing off a decision on quotas or tariffs until next year and allowing more foreign steel to flood the U.S. market, said Philip Bell, president of the Steel Manufacturers Association, who also signed the letter.

“This needs to be wrapped up sooner rather than later and we wanted to help the president understand that,” Bell said.

Another signatory, AISI President Tom Gibson, told Reuters the industry was trying to keep the issue “front and center” while Trump administration officials deal with a range of other issues from North Korea to fiscal policy.

He said that domestic steel producers’ capacity utilization rate was hovering around 75 percent, as steelmakers from South Korea to Turkey target U.S. demand to soak up their excess output.

“Over the long term, that is not a sustainable level,” Gibson said.

Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Tom Brown and Peter Cooney

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