Trump says he invoked Fifth Amendment, declined to answer questions

Trump cranks up pressure on Europe, renewing car tariff threat

Josh Wingrove, Jenny Leonard and William Horobin

President Donald Trump put European leaders on notice, renewing a threat to hurt the economies of transatlantic allies if they aren’t willing to compromise on a trade deal before the U.S. elections.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Trump departed from the more conciliatory tone he struck earlier in the week, repeating a threat to impose tariffs on imports of cars and parts from Europe and claiming that he targeted China first in his trade war because an unfair EU is harder to deal with.

“They have trade barriers where you can’t trade, they have tariffs all over the place, they make it impossible,” Trump said Wednesday. “They are frankly more difficult to do business with than China.”

U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. Trump's two-day stay in Davos is a test of his ability to balance anger over being impeached with a desire to project leadership on the world stage.

The move marked a doubling-down on a strategy built on tariff threats that has yet to work for Trump with European officials who have consistently resisted what they see as efforts to bully them into a deal. Trump agreed to hold fire on auto tariffs in July 2018 after the EU and U.S. agreed to work toward a limited deal on industrial tariffs.

But progress stalled after what EU officials say was an agreement by Trump not to include agriculture in the talks ran into opposition from the U.S. Congress. Trump has already hit $7.5 billion of EU exports with levies over an airline dispute. He also threatened tariffs against France over a new digital services tax, although a truce was announced Wednesday to give more time for negotiations.

Trump’s push illustrates his desire to move quickly on talks with the EU and the U.K. now that has signed a partial agreement with China. But the processes for those discussions are on slower tracks, making the U.S. president’s call for deals to be done this year more challenging to meet, even if some progress is possible on less-controversial issues.

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who heads the EU’s executive arm, has said she would work on a broad, new agreement with the U.S. that would cover not only trade, but also technology and energy. The escalation comes at an awkward time for the bloc, as it prepares to begin trade negotiations with the U.K., which will leave the EU later this month.

Trump has also been intervening in those talks but urging the U.K. to work with him on a deal first.

“We don’t think it’s a good idea to have a trade disputes over months but that we sit down together, we negotiate and find solutions, we exchange some numbers and views on fairness,” von der Leyen told reporters in Davos. “And we’re expecting in a few weeks to have an agreement that we can sign together.”

Perhaps the most brazen American warning of the day came from U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. On a Davos panel with U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid, Mnuchin dangled the prospect of using retaliatory tariffs on automobile imports against countries that institute their own taxes on technology companies.

Such a move would devastate Germany’s already sluggish manufacturing sector, and would likely result in EU retaliatory tariffs aimed at the American economy.

“If people want to just arbitrarily put taxes on our digital companies, we will consider arbitrarily putting taxes on car companies,” Mnuchin said. “We think the digital tax is discriminatory in nature.”

The Trump administration may run into difficulty introducing car tariffs arbitrarily, as Mnuchin said, because the law it has invoked for justification confines the decision to national security. The Trump administration has so far refused to release a report justifying the possible tariffs despite demands from Congress, where opposition to them is bipartisan.

Javid responded by saying the U.K. government plans will go ahead its digital tax in April, telling the panel that the levy is designed to be temporary and will go away when there’s an international agreement.

Last year, France introduced a 3% levy on the digital revenue of companies that make their sales primarily in cyberspace, such as Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google. The U.S. threatened tariffs as high as 100% on $2.4 billion of French goods, saying the measure discriminates against American businesses.

The U.S. and France temporarily resolved the issue Wednesday, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said. At a meeting with Mnuchin on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, Le Maire agreed to delay collecting the digital tax until the end of 2020. In exchange, the U.S. will refrain from imposing the punitive tariffs on French goods it had threatened as retaliation.

With assistance from Francine Lacqua, Alex Wayne, Saleha Mohsin and Zoe Schneeweiss.