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How Republicans tried to change Trump's mind on tariffs

Less than a half hour before President Donald Trump announced at the White House he intended to tack on new tariffs to aluminum and steel coming into the United States, House Speaker Paul Ryan was at a Home Depot in Atlanta telling employees there he was still trying to persuade Trump to scale back his plan.

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Lauren Fox
Phil Mattingly (CNN)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Less than a half hour before President Donald Trump announced at the White House he intended to tack on new tariffs to aluminum and steel coming into the United States, House Speaker Paul Ryan was at a Home Depot in Atlanta telling employees there he was still trying to persuade Trump to scale back his plan.

"We're working on it," Ryan said Thursday afternoon when asked what Congress could do to convince Trump to take a more surgical approach to tariffs. "We're working on that right now, we're working on that right now."

Not long after, Trump announced his plan and Ryan responded.

"I disagree with this action and fear its unintended consequences," Ryan's statement read. "I am pleased that the President has listened to those who share my concerns and included an exemption for some American allies, but it should go further."

Over the last week, Republicans on Capitol Hill have openly opined Trump's trade policy, attacked the protectionist wing of his staff by name, criticized the White House's rollout and publicly bemoaned the loss of top economic adviser Gary Cohn, an ally on trade who stepped down this week amid the drama.

After more than a year of Trump's unpredictable rhetoric, Twitter wars and off-script, televised meetings, Republicans across the ideological spectrum in Congress are no longer just privately fuming at Trump. They're doing it publicly.

"Everybody's trying to reach somebody who might have influence," Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona told CNN just before the announcement. "If you're our allies, our trading partners, you've got to be pulling your hair out right now."

There's been policy disagreements over taxes and health care. But Trump's latest actions on trade have left Republicans incensed, no longer willing to give Trump just the benefit of the doubt.

"Simply put: This is a tax hike on American manufacturers, workers and consumers," Sen. Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement. "Slapping aluminum and steel imports with tariffs of this magnitude is misguided. It undermines the benefits that the new tax law provides and runs counter to our goal of advancing pro-growth trade policies that will keep America competitive in the 21st Century global economy."

Furiously working behind the scenes

According to several aides and sources involved in the matter, lawmakers and aides have worked for days to try and reverse Trump's course or at least get him to water down his proposal behind the scenes as well.

Lawmakers from Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on down to rank-and-file Republicans who boasted of good relationships in the White House worked to try and reshape what had been initially announced as a broad, sweeping action.

The results were mixed -- with some pointing to small victories in the structure of what the President announced Thursday.

"Look, it's better than what it was," one senior Republican aide said. "Does that remedy a bad policy? No. But it's an opening."

"Trade wars are insanely stupid so slightly smaller trade wars are less disastrous. But trade wars are dumb. Americans lose in every trade war. Consumers win when there is more trade on both sides of every trading relationship," Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, said ahead of Trump's announcement.

Both Ryan and McConnell spoke to concerned allies, the sources said. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called both on Thursday before the announcement, according to sources.

For several weeks, according to a GOP congressional source, Ryan had urged the President to avoid across the board tariffs. He specifically pushed the President on it when they met in Mar-a-Lago last month -- a meeting that was described at the time as focused on immigration and the Parkland, Florida school shooting.

While he regularly speaks to the President, Ryan and his staff were also regularly looped in on the ongoing debate, one that had shifted sharply against his views, throughout that period. During the past week, Ryan worked on the President to consider alternatives, focusing on a more targeted approach, and short of that, broader exemptions.

Ryan also worked with a familiar face for Trump -- Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, the co-author of the President's signature legislative achievement: the 2017 tax law. Brady, whose committee has jurisdiction over trade, pushed for meetings at the White House and pulled together a letter signed by 107 House Republicans raising concerns about the proposal. After several efforts to meet or speak didn't come to pass, source said, Brady finally spoke to the president by phone on Wednesday night in his push to narrow the proposal.

Ryan also served as a rallying point for lawmakers, companies, outside groups and even several administration officials looking for ways to pressure the White House against the President's preferred route. He kept in touch with Cohn, one source said, and also spoke to the Vice President.

Ryan, the congressional source said, plans to continue to press the White House to narrow the proposal in the days and weeks ahead. By Thursday afternoon, he echoed McConnell in saying he was "pleased" that the proposal took, if only somewhat, a more targeted approach.

'It's a step in the right direction. It's still all bad'

Republicans are still holding out hope that Trump's left the door open to exemptions for key US allies like Canada and Mexico, but aides and members alike say the proposal could still do damage.

"It's a step in the right direction. It's still all bad," said Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota and member of GOP leadership. "There isn't anything about this that's going to turn out well for us, but we would at least like to lessen the harmful impact by having it more tailored and making it a more surgical approach."

It's not as if Republicans weren't aware of Trump's positions on trade when he assumed office last year. On the campaign trail, Trump struck a much more populist tone on tariffs than the traditional GOP orthodoxy. But many had hoped that with Cohn in their corner, Trump would soften his position. Instead, they say Trump's relied on advice from more like-minded aides like US Trade Representative Robert LIghthizer and trade adviser Peter Navarro.

"They confirm the President's worst instincts on trade," Flake said.

The balance for Republicans now is to try and influence Trump on trade without alienating him.

In their statements Thursday many Republicans sought to congratulate Trump for making some concessions meanwhile imploring him to make more.

"I am pleased to see that the administration today made accommodations for some of our trading partners and allies. However, important questions remain about whether ultimately these tariffs will be sufficiently targeted, tailored and limited," McConnell said in a statement. "I look forward to working with the administration to make sure that our trade policy focuses on curbing abusive behavior and protecting our interests here at home without harming America's economic security."

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