In The Media

Japan premier hopes to turn ‘little smile’ into steel exemption

by Franco Ordonez (feat. Eric Miller)

San Francisco Gate
April 17, 2018

WASHINGTON — When President Trump signed a new law on steel and aluminum tariffs, he mentioned Japan and the “little smile” on its leader’s face reflecting what Trump believed to be the island nation’s pleasure at long having a trade advantage over the United States.

That rhetorical slight, combined with Japan being a key ally that was not granted an exemption from the tariffs, has cast an awkward pallor over the meetings that began Tuesday between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Abe, who like Trump, is saddled with political scandals in their capitals, is looking to recapture a personal bond with Trump forged on the golf course — and push for the exemptions already granted to the European Union, Australia, Canada, Mexico and others.

“Trump has a lot of hang ups about Japan leftover since the 1980s,” said Eric Miller, a trade consultant who has advised Asian governments. “He is somebody who the Japanese have found very frustrating to deal with. There is this huge effort to try to get into Trump’s good books and one of the things for the Japanese is they have not gotten anything for it.”

Abe has also invested a lot of political capital into his relationship with Trump and can hardly afford to return home empty-handed after the “little smile” comment, an embarrassing rebuke that was covered across Japan.

“I’ll talk to Prime Minister Abe of Japan and others — great guy, friend of mine,” Trump said when signing the new tariffs last month. “There will be a little smile on their face. And the smile is, ‘I can’t believe we’ve been able to take advantage of the United States for so long,’” he continued. “Those days are over.”

The slight was particularly painful considering most other key U.S. allies have been granted exemptions to the tariffs, which went into effect last month. And some of them, including Canada and Mexico, are in tense re-negotiations of their free trade deals.

The White House on Tuesday dismissed any concerns about friction between the two leaders.

Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, left open the possibility Tuesday that Japan could be included in the tariff exemptions, but made no promises.

“This is all on the table,” Kudlow said. “That’s why this is such an important meeting.”

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Riverside, who met with Abe earlier this month, said Japan should be exempted, given its role as an economic and national security partner.


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