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Trump’s new tariff tormentor

Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Orrin Hatch — some of President Donald Trump’s fiercest GOP critics on trade — are retiring from the Senate at the end of this year.

But Pat Toomey isn’t going anywhere.

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Reelected to a six-year term in 2016 alongside Trump, the conservative Pennsylvania senator has emerged as Trump’s sharpest antagonist on trade policy — pushing legislation with Corker to take back Congress’ power over trade deals and straining to defend NAFTA from the erratic president.

Toomey’s eagerness to engage in a battle that’s dividing the Republican Party has drawn regular phone calls from Trump and invitations to the White House, where the senator and the president have politely, but pointedly, disagreed about Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs on U.S. allies and his threats to go further. And even if somehow Trump can be convinced to exclude Mexico, Canada and Europe from the tariffs, Toomey says he will not give up on returning trade authority to Congress.

“We’ve crossed the Rubicon,” Toomey said in an interview. “It’s going to do and is already doing real damage so I think we’ve got a responsibility to stand up and push back.”

Toomey is a savvy politician, refusing to reveal his support for Trump until the polls closed on election day in 2016. But whether Toomey can convince his colleagues — including many who privately agree with him — to actually stand up to the president is another matter entirely.

Even as the migrant family separation crisis roiled Washington last week, Senate Republican were arguing bitterly with each other over whether to confront the president with Corker and Toomey’s amendment, according to Republican senators. Trump’s closest allies are harshly critical of the proposal, which would require Congress to approve of national security-related tariffs.

“What we don’t want to do is undercut our commander-in-chief right now while he’s in the middle of these negotiations. And that’s what they’re trying to do,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.). “It’s all about President Trump and some people in the Congress thinking that we’re going to get involved in every tariff negotiation. That’s a terrible idea.”

That the normally reserved Toomey is willing to stick his neck out so far against the president underscores his passion on economic issues. Toomey tends to stay out of the grind of the daily news cycle and rarely criticizes Trump for his tweets or off-the-cuff remarks.

But Toomey’s taken to the Senate floor to rebut the president’s protectionist arguments and has criticized congressional inaction: “We are not potted plants.” That pushback caused the president to call him amid international negotiations with North Korea, though their conversation didn’t convince Trump to change course. Now Trump is threatening to place a 20 percent tariff on all European cars, a move that could force more senators to join with Toomey and Corker.

The former president of the conservative Club for Growth said his crusade is a matter of philosophical consistency and that Congress is dithering while the executive branch’s power grows and grows. And no place is it more obvious than trade.

“The Constitution is completely unambiguous. … It is the authority of Congress to establish tariffs,” Toomey said. “We’ve given him a lot of authority and I think that is authority that should reside with Congress.”

While some former Trump critics like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) say that because Trump is the party’s leader, the GOP should defer to him on trade, Toomey takes the opposite view. He defends NAFTA as “very good for all of us.” And he says the president “doesn’t have the legal authority” to withdraw from it unilaterally.

Toomey also rejects Trump’s constant complaints of trade deficits, noting the U.S. economy and standard of living far exceeds those of countries Trump says are getting the better of the United States.

“The president describes a deficit with another country as theft. I believe the president couldn’t be more mistaken about that,” Toomey said. “You want to shrink a trade deficit, there’s an easy way to do it: have a recession.”

The Pennsylvania senator even takes issue with the way the president is ratcheting up a trade war with China in a wave of escalating tariff threats. Toomey agrees that China is a bad actor that is stealing intellectual property from U.S. companies, but he surmises that Trump is fixated on trade deficits — a “non-problem” in Toomey’s view.

“I am skeptical about the tactics that he’s using. It’s also not clear to me what the goal is of the administration. What’s the goal?” Toomey said. “There is an underlying problem. It’s not clear whether these tariffs are even meant to deal with that.”

Toomey’s colleagues say that even though he’s not among the usual suspects of Trump critics, it makes sense that he’s taking a leading role in the fight given his free-market bona fides, even as Toomey’s trade position fades in popularity in his party.

“He’s been a staunch free-trader. Hell or high water,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). “That’s just who he is. His convictions are that. And you’ve got to respect it.”

But the GOP is painfully divided over whether Toomey and Corker’s tactics are the right way to achieve their goal.

Maxine Waters is pictured. | Getty

Senate Republicans say their caucus is split into factions: A minority think confronting the president and his party with a difficult vote will send a strong message. But a larger number of GOP senators believe that it’s more effective both on the politics and policy to try to convince Trump to backdown in conversations behind the scenes.

“There are efforts being made through other channels to try and work with the administration to shape the policy and see if they can’t change it in a way that undoes what everyone perceives is going to be collateral damage,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 GOP leader. “The majority of members of our conference think that you get more done” that way.

That’s not going to work for Toomey, who doesn’t want to set the precedent of allowing a president to even temporarily claim national security as a justification to slap penalties on U.S. allies.

A majority of GOP senators are serving with a Republican president for the first time, Toomey among them. And he says as they grow more comfortable with the give and take between two branches run by the same party, they will come around to his side.

“We’re going through a new experience,” Toomey admits.

So far, it’s been a difficult one.

He and Corker were stifled from getting a vote on their amendment to the defense bill over fears that it would complicate the must-pass legislation from becoming law. Toomey did get a vote on something else the president opposes: More congressional oversight of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. But Corker says Toomey “actually cared more about” the tariff amendment.

For now, it’s unclear whether the two will have any more luck this summer on securing amendment votes on spending bills or farm legislation. But at some point, Toomey says, the Senate will vote.

“I’m going to be absolutely adamant,” Toomey said. “Even if the president would diminish these [steel and aluminum] tariffs that would be a good thing. But I think it would still be important to go down this road.”

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