U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said today he sees no issue with President Donald Trump's inclination to use tariffs to pressure countries to make policy changes in areas unrelated to trade, specifically when they present threats to national security.
Lighthizer, in testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, was asked about Trump's recent move to threaten tariffs against Mexico unless the country significantly increased its efforts to stem the flow of Central Americans seeking asylum in the U.S.
"I think if you get to the point where you think it's a national crisis, a national security problem, you do what you have to do. Absolutely," Lighthizer told Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). "And I would suggest any member would do that."
Menendez then pressed Lighthizer as to whether it would be appropriate to use tariffs in other non-trade situations that could be interpreted as posing a threat to national security. The New Jersey Democrat asked Lighthizer whether it would be appropriate to impose tariffs on NATO countries that aren't spending enough money on defense or on countries that aren't doing enough to block Huawei, among other examples.
Each time, Lighthizer responded that he had not given those hypothetical examples "five seconds worth of thought," and that it would be up to the president to decide how to act.
"It's a dangerous economic game to play, especially when we're not talking about trade-related issues," Menendez said. "And I hope that internally you express that."