Rebuffed by Trump on Tariffs, Businesses Mount Coordinated Pushback

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WASHINGTON — They’ve testified, tweeted, written and called with their concerns. Now American businesses, which have so far been unable to stop President Trump from imposing sweeping tariffs, are mounting a last-ditch effort to convince the president that his trade policies are hurting his political base.

In a multimillion-dollar campaign that includes television advertisements, rallies in targeted congressional districts and online persuasion efforts, companies and business groups led by the National Retail Federation and an agricultural group called Farmers for Free Trade are highlighting the damage the tariffs are bringing to companies and workers in states with large numbers of Trump supporters.

The effort, called Tariffs Hurt the Heartland, focuses heavily on the economic pain that manufacturers say is being inflicted upon industries that Mr. Trump champions and patches of the country that lifted him to the White House. It includes nearly 90 industry trade groups, like the Consumer Technology Association, the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association and the Toy Association.

“We’re obviously trying to reach the White House,” said David French, the retail federation’s senior vice president for government relations, “and we’re trying to deliver a narrative to the White House that is clear and unambiguous, about the breadth of communities where the consequences of these tariffs will be felt.”

But to persuade the president, companies must first win over the public — in particular, Mr. Trump’s most loyal supporters, who continue to back his trade policies by a wide margin. Eighty percent of Republicans support the steel and aluminum tariffs that Mr. Trump put in place this year, according to a survey conducted in early September for The New York Times by the online polling firm SurveyMonkey. Seventy-one percent of Republicans said Mr. Trump’s overall trade policies make them more likely to support a Republican candidate in the midterm elections in November.

That tension between business groups — which have cheered Republicans over tax cuts and efforts to reduce federal regulation — and Mr. Trump’s political base has proved difficult for many Republican members of Congress to navigate. Though many have spoken out against some or all of the president’s tariffs, the Republican-held House and Senate have taken few concrete steps to push back against his policies.

The most vocal opponents have been businesses, which have found their entreaties repeatedly rebuffed by a president who has continued to threaten an escalating series of tariffs on goods from China, Canada and the European Union.

Apple, Ford and General Motors, along with hundreds of smaller businesses, have all publicly warned Mr. Trump that his tariffs will hurt the very companies he wants to protect, at the expense of American jobs and economic growth.

Mr. Trump’s answer: Make your stuff in the United States.

Mr. Trump has already imposed tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from several countries, and on $50 billion worth of goods from China, a country his administration says is violating the norms of international trade. The president appears set to complete a second round of tariffs on China, on as much as $200 billion in imports, and he has said he is willing to move quickly to a third round that would encompass all Chinese imports — including many everyday household items like apparel, electronics and other consumer products. And he has continued to threaten tariffs on cars imported from the European Union and Canada.

That has raised the stakes for American businesses, which face higher costs to source material and products from abroad and retaliation from other nations that has made it harder to sell into foreign markets.

Business owners have found sympathetic ears among lawmakers and the White House, but little action, prompting a more coordinated effort to try to show how tariffs hurt American consumers and businesses by raising prices.

“Our objective is to talk about that point,” said Brian Dodge, a senior executive vice president at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, “and make sure that there is no one left with the impression that tariffs are something that other countries pay.”

The coalition includes small business owners like Vivian R. Sayward, who owns Vivacity Sportswear, an athleisure maker in conservative San Diego, and who has been frustrated by congressional inaction. On a recent visit to Capitol Hill, Ms. Sayward wore clothing made in the United States by her company but stitched with Dryflex fabric imported from China. She used her outfit as a teaching tool, telling lawmakers and staff members where each thread and zipper came from, and warning how a new wave of tariffs on imported goods would make the clothes much more expensive.

The reaction to her visit from members of Congress and their aides, Ms. Sayward says, was, “We hear you, we understand, but we can’t do anything just yet.”

“That was frustrating, of course,” she said. “It’s easy to say that from Washington. But we’re on the ground.”

Tiffany Zarfas Williams, a third-generation owner of the Luggage Shop of Lubbock, in Texas, said she also found a cool reception when she flew to Washington to urge lawmakers to reject the tariffs. The measures, she says, would force price increases on at least 85 percent of the items in her store, just before the holiday shopping season begins.

“I couldn’t get a feel if lawmakers — if they didn’t understand how it’s going to affect consumers, or if it’s just tougher in an election year,” she said.

Cedar Electronics, in Illinois, which manufactures radar detectors, CB radios and other communications devices under brand names like Cobra, has warned that tariffs could threaten jobs at its manufacturing plant in West Chester, Ohio, where it produces custom-installed radar detectors. The plant imports components from China that have been hit by tariffs already, and has filed requests for tariff exclusions with the United States Trade Representative for products the company says it cannot source elsewhere.

“We’re effectively being penalized for bringing manufacturing back to the United States,” Christopher Cowger, Cedar’s president and chief executive, said, adding that it was hard to get the Trump administration to hear that complaint.

“There doesn’t seem to be a real path to success there,” said Mr. Cowger, whose company has joined the campaign. “In the interim, it’s about finding as many platforms, forums and pulpits, to tell our story.”

Economic data have yet to show a surge of price increases related to tariffs, a fact that many business leaders acknowledge is working against their pitch to Mr. Trump. Trade groups and executives say that could quickly change if Mr. Trump follows through with additional tariffs on Chinese products.

The Federal Reserve’s beige book, which collects anecdotes from business contacts across the country, noted increased warnings of price pressures from tariffs in its latest edition released on Wednesday — though Fed officials have said they have yet to see such warnings translate into increased inflation.

“Tariffs were reported to be contributing to rising input costs, mainly for manufacturers,” the beige book said. “Businesses’ input costs have generally been rising more rapidly than selling prices, though there have been increased efforts to pass along cost hikes to customers.”

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Trade Groups Turn Up Heat On President To End Tariffs
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