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Spicer argues against 'Made in America' protectionism – for Trump's businesses

John Harwood
Press Secretary Sean Spicer dodged questions about the Trumps' overseas business operations on Monday as the White House celebrated "Made in America Week."

Even in the Trump administration, sometimes White House arguments are enough to made you do every single thing in the amazement cliché handbook – jaw dropped, head spun, breath taken away.

And I'm not even talking about the White House press secretary's claim Monday that "there was nothing so far as we know that would lead anyone to believe" that Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer, who had promised dirt on Hillary Clinton , wasn't about adoption policy.

No, I'm talking about Sean Spicer 's audio only, off-camera briefing Monday as Donald Trump sought to celebrate what his aides have dubbed "Made in America Week."

In the name of hard-pressed American workers, Trump has long vowed to impose tariffs that punish American companies who move manufacturing overseas. Monday at the White House, he kicked off renewed attention to his message by highlighting products manufactured here.

At his briefing, Spicer received the most obvious of questions: What about the products that businesses owned by Trump and his daughter Ivanka manufacture overseas, such as shirts, ties, shoes and home goods?

Spicer first dodged direct comment by saying it would be "out of bounds" and "inappropriate to discuss" any specific business, including ones owned by the president or his family. He noted that Trump's economic policies, such as regulatory relief and tax reform, are designed to serve the administration's "overall arching goal…to grow manufacturing" in the U.S.

But then he offered the same defense offered by every corporate CEO who manufactures abroad to reduce costs, or who imports labor to fill jobs Americans can't or won't do.

"There are certain supply chains or scalability that may not be available in this country," Spicer responded. "There are certain things we may not have the capacity to do here."

That, of course, is the Economics 101 justification for an open trading system in which economic activity flows wherever the logic of supply and demand dictate, allowing countries and regions to capitalize on their areas of "comparative advantage."

But it's also the argument that Trump has spent months repudiating while browbeating companies such as General Motors and Carrier over potential manufacturing moves. "Corporate America is going to have to understand that we have to take care of our workers also," Trump told the New York Times in December after winning the White House.

The administration is currently considering steel import tariffs that would shield domestic manufacturers but could also raise prices and spark a trade war. Trump's trade adviser, Peter Navarro, has talked of unraveling international supply chains and returning them to the U.S. The White House has also signaled interest in GOP proposals on Capitol Hill to reduce legal immigration as well as illegal border-crossings.

"It does the American economy no long-term good to only keep the big box factories where we are now assembling 'American' products that are composed primarily of foreign components," Navarro told the Financial Times. "We need to manufacture those components in a robust domestic supply chain that will spur job and wage growth."

Even on Made in America Week, Spicer shrugged off that argument with respect to businesses connected with Trump. To the contrary, he praised his boss' business acumen.

"The president has been a very successful businessman on a number of fronts and a number of areas and industries," Spicer told reporters. "So I actually think that he's, in a very unique way, able to talk about the challenges that so many of these companies face as they choose to expand."