Questions about tariffs, exemptions and a US retreat into protectionism dominated Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s press conference at Tuesday’s G20 meeting today, as the US official repeatedly faced questions from journalists over a possible "trade war."
Mnuchin, pushing back on claims the tariffs dominated proceedings, chose to focus instead on the “productive conversations” that took place over the past two days. However, when pushed on the likelihood of other nations taking steps in retribution, he declared: "We’re not afraid of getting into a trade war."
Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs for the US Department of the Treasury Tony Sayegh solicited questions from mostly US-based journalists, and a plurality of them focused on Trump’s proposed tariffs – a 25-percent tariff on steel and a 10-percent tariff on aluminium – which are set to go into effect Friday March 23.
Reporters were met with a repeated refusal to get into specifics on the duties, and Mnuchin clarified that talks of the tariffs made up a "very small part" of the discussions that had taken place at the two-day G20 meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors in Buenos Aires.
Though the tariffs are largely aimed at China to curb cheap metal imports, Canada and Mexico are the only countries thus far who are have been exempted. The European Union has responded with a threat of reciprocal tariffs on items such as US cigarettes and lipstick if not granted an exemption.
“This is not about protectionism, this is about reciprocal trade. We’re not looking to have protectionism,” said Mnuchin. “The steel and aluminium issue is a result of unfair trade issues.”
Shortly after President Trump’s decision, officials from the Argentine Foreign and Production Ministry appealed to US Department of Commerce head Wilbur Ross in hopes of exemption from the tariffs, citing the country’s small share in the US market. Argentina makes up 0.6 percent of steel imports and 2.3 percent of aluminium imports.
When asked about how likely Argentina would be exempted on a scale of one to ten after several questions on the topic, Mnuchin prompted laughter as he replied: “Do you really think I’m going to answer that?”
The Treasury secretary shared that conversations about countries being exempt were “ongoing” and that despite not being able to give specific comments about the number of countries, he expects Trump to make a decision quickly.
Mnuchin also emphasised Washignton's desire for “free and fair reciprocal trade,” repeating the phrase several times throughout the conference and saying that it is something Trump has been “very clear on”.
“We need to be prepared to act in the US interest to defend free and fair trade. In doing that there’s always a risk. There’s a risk of a trade war. That's not our goal. But we are not afraid of it," asserted Mnuchin.
The topic of Venezuela sanctions closed the conference, with Mnuchin applauding Trump’s executive order banning US citizens from using Venezuela’s “Petro” cryptocurrency.
“We don’t comment on future sanctions, but we will evaluate the situation and consider additional sanctions,” said Mnuchin. “Our issue is not with the people, our focus is on how that economy is being destroyed and we’re concerned aid is not getting through.”