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Tariffs the Trump administration imposed on Chinese imports are still in place

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There are big issues between Washington and Beijing on trade.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah. When he was president, Donald Trump launched a trade war with China, eventually slapping tariffs on more than $300 billion worth of imports. And 2 1/2 years into the Biden presidency, those tariffs are under review but have not yet changed.

FADEL: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid talked to both Trump and Biden's top trade officials about this, and she joins us now. Good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So, Asma, let's go back in time first. Why were these tariffs put on China to begin with?

KHALID: Well, for years, businesses had been complaining that China was not playing fairly - that they subsidized their companies, they didn't respect intellectual property rights and even forced American companies, in some cases, to turn over their tech secrets. And so Donald Trump came in and basically turned the traditional free trade norm on its head. His top trade person during this time period was a man named Bob Lighthizer. And we spoke on the phone the other day. He told me that the U.S. relationship with China, he believed, had to fundamentally change.

ROBERT LIGHTHIZER: We can't keep transferring hundreds of billions of dollars every year to somebody who's trying to harm us and take our jobs and steal our technology and threaten our military and the like.

KHALID: So the Trump administration turned to tariffs, which, I will say, at the time, was extremely controversial - a 25% tariff on Chinese imports. Lots of everyday items that Americans rely on from China were taxed. I mean, you think underwear, coats, utensils. There were also tariffs on a bunch of obscure parts that are used by American manufacturers. To be clear, many critics will say these are taxes, and these are taxes that are paid by American businesses and American consumers, not the Chinese.

FADEL: Now, I remember all the warnings about how this would affect prices and competition. And when Biden took over, what did he do with them?

KHALID: Yeah, I mean, to your point, there was a lot of criticism. I will say, Democrats piled on Trump. They said that he was haphazard in the way that he launched this fight with China. One of the things that intrigues me, really, about Joe Biden is that he talks a lot about making things in America. I'm sure you've heard him highlight the subsidies that his government is offering to lure factories back from overseas.

FADEL: Right.

KHALID: But he's not out there talking about these tariffs, and yet, he has kept them in place. His team is currently reviewing them. And I asked Biden's top trade official, Katherine Tai, what is going on with this review? You know, are you going to lift any of the tariffs? And she said something that I thought was rather telling.

KATHERINE TAI: One key question that's really important for us to consider is, what has China done in these last few years that would merit our changing this tariff structure?

KHALID: She told me there are real issues with the way that China trades, and those issues have not gone away. She also said that overall, she's looking at how the U.S. can break what she called an addiction to just chasing the lowest price for everything, no matter the cost. I should add that tariff review I mentioned is expected to wrap up later this year. But, of course, then we head into a presidential election year, and these tariffs were Donald Trump's signature policy, and he is the current Republican front-runner.

FADEL: Asma, what about the businesses that pay these tariffs? What are they saying about the review?

KHALID: Well, there are definitely U.S. companies that appreciate these tariffs, and I interviewed some. But there are also business owners who are really frustrated with the climate. They had hoped that Joe Biden and his team would have changed some aspects of the tariff policy by now. I went out to Minnesota to a company called MISCO. They make sound speakers, and a lot of their parts come from China. The company's CEO, Dan Digre, told me he feels like a pawn in this big geopolitical game, and he thinks any conversation about rescinding these tariffs will be seen as being weak on China. And so as the presidential election cycle heats up, he is not optimistic that things will change.

FADEL: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Thanks.

KHALID: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.