ASHINGTON — Auto tariffs may seem like a foregone conclusion, but there are pieces on the policy chessboard that could constrain President Donald Trump from fulfilling his threats.
With one wrong move, the White House could get checkmated.
Decisions in any one area — the China trade war, the pending U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal, bilateral trade deals with the European Union and Japan, existing tariffs on steel and aluminum — have consequences elsewhere.
Gauging the political winds is also important. While there is little political support for tariffs on imported autos and auto parts, businesses, unions and lawmakers generally agree that China's trade practices are unfair and hurt U.S. businesses.
"Legally, these are all distinct and separate tracks, but from [U.S. Trade Representative Robert] Lighthizer's perspective, mission No. 1, far and away, is bringing China to heel. That is where he is putting his energy," said Bernd Janzen, a trade attorney at Akin Gump.
While automakers and their workers would be hurt by tariffs, with a win on China, "There could be a big round of applause all around, on the Hill, in a lot of U.S. industry," he said. "So, I think there's a big difference in the pecking order."
Yet there are risks there, too. A weak deal with China could alienate the president's supporters and embolden other trading partners.
The auto sector is trying to influence the outcome as much as it can. But ultimately, no amount of scenario planning can account for Trump, who tends to work outside traditional channels of political and industry advisers.
However he proceeds, Trump will be eager to fulfill a campaign promise to aggressively tackle large trade deficits and the migration of manufacturing jobs out of the U.S., which he sees as an economic and security threat.