By Alex Leary and William Mauldin 

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration is preparing to suspend collection of import tariffs for three months to give U.S. companies financial relief amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to administration officials.

"Customs duties will be suspended for three months," a senior administration official said Friday.

Companies would still be liable for the tariffs at a later date, which hadn't been determined, another official said. Officials said there would be no formal changes to tariff policy.

It wasn't immediately known when the suspension would be announced, and trade experts cautioned that President Trump could still overrule the plans.

Asked about The Wall Street Journal's report at a press briefing late Friday, Mr. Trump called the report "fake news."

Mr. Trump signed a roughly $2 trillion economic-stimulus bill Friday as the economy has been brought to a standstill by the coronavirus pandemic.

Business groups have called for tariff relief. They have faced resistance from trade hawks and domestic industries such as steel calling for protection from what they see as unfairly traded imports.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection in recent days sent out a formal notice saying it would provide temporary delays for customs duties on a case-by-case-basis, only to rescind the offer on Thursday.

Even so, the administration officials said the White House was now moving to stop the collection of tariffs, while leaving the tariffs in place.

A spokesman for Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, didn't immediately reply to a request for comment.

The plans for tariff-payment delays doesn't by itself mean the administration is backing away from the use of trade barriers to defend domestic industry. Trade experts say the combination of the 2020 presidential election and a possible recession suggests the administration would face a political backlash if it removed the tariffs, including in manufacturing-heavy states of the Midwest.

"This whole crisis is a vindication of President Trump's tariff policies, which over the last three years have already begun to bring some of our supply chains and jobs home," White House trade and manufacturing adviser Peter Navarro told The Wall Street Journal last week.

On Friday, Mr. Navarro was appointed by Mr. Trump to oversee government efforts to arrange private production of essential items during the coronavirus pandemic. Mr. Navarro couldn't immediately be reached by telephone Friday.

Mr. Trump has imposed global tariffs on steel and aluminum imports as well as tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese products in a trade war sparked off by China's treatment of American intellectual property and trade secrets.

Other imports also face duties based on findings of foreign "dumping" or subsidies, and the U.S. maintains usually low tariffs on a host of products from most countries under international agreements.

Washington and Beijing in January signed a "phase one" agreement that serves as a truce in the trade war. Thee U.S. didn't remove tariffs on any Chinese products under that pact, only reducing the rates of some tariffs.

The pact requires China to buy $200 billion more in U.S. exports than previously, and Mr. Trump has said he expects the pact to be upheld. The two countries have recently seen tensions grow over the virus, which spread from China, as well as a spat that has seen both nations reduce the number of foreign correspondents permitted from the other country.


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 27, 2020 19:24 ET (23:24 GMT)

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