LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continued to caution against trade wars Friday but praised President Donald Trump for his tough stance against China, saying he hopes it produces a better deal after years of the Chinese "eating our lunch" on trade.
Speaking to workers at a water tank manufacturing plant in his Kentucky hometown, the Senate leader said he hopes U.S. disputes with trading partners are short-lived but took a tougher stand toward China while praising the president's actions.
"I hope there's a better deal to be made out of this — particularly with regard to the Chinese, who have been eating our lunch for years," said McConnell, R-Ky. "I'm not as hopeful we can get a better deal with the North American Free Trade Agreement than we currently have. But there's no question that the Chinese situation is unsustainable. And I commend the president for taking them on."
Responding to a reporter's questions about tariffs, McConnell also downplayed prospects for any congressional action by critics of Trump's tariffs, saying such legislation "probably would not be achievable, even if it were desirable" given that it would need the president's signature.
"Even if Congress were to decide to legislate in this area, I think the president believes deeply that this is going to work out in the end," he said.
McConnell, a free-trade advocate, said in June that he had counseled the Trump administration to try to avoid trade disputes.
China's bulging trade surplus with the United States has been a frequent source of anger and threats from Trump.
The Trump administration this week announced it would proceed with previously announced 25 percent tariffs on an additional $16 billion of Chinese imports starting Aug. 23. China hit back by saying it would impose identical punitive duties on $16 billion of U.S. goods, including cars, crude oil and scrap metal, also to take effect Aug. 23. The tit-for-tat dispute has escalated since the U.S. imposed 25 percent duties on $34 billion of Chinese goods in early July in response to complaints that China steals or pressures foreign companies to hand over technology.
Tariffs are taxes on imports. They are meant to protect homegrown businesses and put foreign competitors at a disadvantage. But the taxes also exact a price on domestic businesses and consumers who pay more for imports.
The Trump administration has warned of a possible further escalation, threatening to impose penalties on an additional $200 billion in Chinese exports to the United States, provoking threats of further retaliation from China.
Trump's use of tariffs as a tool aimed at leveraging more favorable agreements with major U.S. trading partners has unsettled some prominent business sectors in McConnell's home state, including agriculture and its famed bourbon industry.
McConnell acknowledged Friday that the impact of tariffs is a "mixed picture" in Kentucky. He said he hopes any trade war is short because if it's "taken to its ultimate conclusion, it will not work out well for either side — both us or our trading partner."
The senator touted Republican tax cuts during his visit to the Louisville manufacturing plant, saying lower taxes and regulatory rollbacks have contributed to an upswing in the U.S. economy that he predicted will be sustained.
"I don't think anybody can predict the future of the economy with total precision, but I don't think there's any question this is going to last for a while," said McConnell, who is already looking ahead to his next re-election campaign in 2020.