WASHINGTON -- A dozen top automotive executives met at the White House on Friday for talks on fuel economy rules and trade but President Trump focused on boosting domestic manufacturing in public remarks before moving behind closed doors.
"We have a great capacity for building. We're importing a lot of cars. We want a lot of those cars to be built in the U.S.," said Trump, who wants to reverse trends in outsourcing and trade deficits. In typical take-all style in which the U.S. would reduce imports while expecting other countries to accept more U.S. exports, Trump added: "Build them here, and also ship them overseas. Doing a reverse act."
He said the massive corporate tax cut package enacted early this year is motivating companies to relocate overseas plants to the U.S. and expand domestic operations.
Trump heaped praise on Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne for deciding last year to move production of Ram Heavy Duty pickups from Saltillo, Mexico, to a plant in Warren, Mich., in 2020.
As the executives introduced themselves at the White House meeting Friday, Trump stopped at Marchionne and said, "By the way, thank you. You're moving to Michigan from Mexico. That's what we like.
"Now he's my favorite man in the room. Big announcement. The people in Michigan very much appreciated it. It's a big deal. I appreciate it," Trump said in remarks broadcast live.
The meeting with Trump and top administration officials and cabinet members was also attended by General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Hackett, as well as Bob Carter, executive vice president of sales for Toyota Motor North America, Mercedes-Benz USA CEO Dietmar Exler, BMW of North America CEO Bernhard Kuhnt, Volkswagen Group of America CEO Hinrich Woebcken and senior executives from Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Hyundai.
Marchionne told Reuters before the meeting that he is "fully supportive" of the Trump administration's efforts to relax the Obama-era fuel economy and emissions standards, in light of shifting consumer preferences for light trucks, notably crossovers, SUVs and pickups.
Marchionne said he still hopes the administration can reach a deal with California to maintain nationwide emissions standards. Trump is "probably the most consummate dealmaker I've seen in a long long time. I think we should give him a chance to get it done," Marchionne said.
Bloomberg, citing people familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment publicly, said the White House expressed an openness to extending fuel efficiency standards until 2030 -- one of California's key demands.
The state maintains its own tailpipe rules that are aligned with federal targets through 2025. A rollback at the federal level without California following suit would split the U.S. light-vehicle market into two.
Asked by a reporter if he still has confidence in EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who is playing a central role in the fuel efficiency rulemaking and attended the meeting, Trump responded, "Yes, I do."
The president, responding to another question, repeated his antipathy for NAFTA, a trade deal automakers say is critical to maintain.
"I've never been a NAFTA fan. NAFTA has been a terrible deal for the U.S. We have some bad deals in this country. Between the Iran deal, NAFTA," Trump said. "We're renegotiating NAFTA right now. We'll see what happens. Mexico and Canada – look, they don't like to lose the golden goose, but I'm the U.S. I'm not representing Mexico and I'm not representing Canada. NAFTA has been a horrible disaster for this country and we'll see if we can make it reasonable," Trump said.
Mitch Bainwol, CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and John Bozzella, CEO of Global Automakers, in a joint statement Friday welcomed Trump's "openness to a discussion with California on an expedited basis.”
Trump "is passionate about our industry and we appreciate his interest and shared commitment to American jobs and the economy," Bainwol and Bozzella said.