The Senate’s top leader is usually a powerful ally of President Donald Trump, but he finds himself at odds with his fellow Republican over slapping tariffs on American allies.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warns that key Kentucky products including bourbon could wind up targets of retaliation if a trade war erupts over the Trump administration’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum from Europe, Mexico and Canada.
“I don’t think anything good will come out of a trade war,” McConnell said during an appearance Friday before Greater Louisville Inc., the metro chamber of commerce. “And I hope we pull back from the brink here. Because these tariffs will not be good for the economy.”
McConnell, who has worked closely with Trump on cutting taxes, rolling back regulations and putting conservative judges on the federal bench, said of the looming trade dispute: “I’m among those who counseled the administration to try to avoid this, and I hope in the end we will be able to.”
McConnell said Kentucky-made bourbon, farm products and automobiles could be hurt from retaliatory moves.
The European Union has included bourbon on a list of U.S. goods that could be targeted for retaliation. Total U.S. spirits exports to the EU in 2017 were valued at $789 million and bourbon accounted for about 20 percent of that — or $154 million, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.
Asked Friday if he thought the Europeans were trying to get his attention, McConnell replied: “Well, they got my attention. They didn’t need to do that. … Canada and Mexico, Europe — these are our allies, and we need to work this out in a way that’s comforting to everyone.”
McConnell said there’s not much Congress can do to intervene in the tariff dispute.
“It’s really an executive branch activity, and he’s got the authority to do what he’s chosen to do,” the senator said. “It’s just that, I think, many of us feel that it shouldn’t be done.”
Kentucky produces about 95 percent of the world’s bourbon, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. The distillers’ group said in a statement that it advocates “free and fair trade,” which it said has catapulted its industry to “an unparalleled chapter of global success.”
Kentucky Republican Party Chairman Mac Brown, a former spirits company executive, also expressed concerns about looming global trade fights, saying “nobody likes tariffs.” But he counseled patience and a focus on the “bigger picture.”
“I wish they weren’t going to happen, but it’s part of life,” Brown said during a separate Louisville appearance Friday. “We have to see the bigger picture here. Now, I don’t want my industry to be picked on, but we can deal with life and move forward. And let’s find out what he’s (Trump) going to do. Just think of the Korea thing, on again, off again, on again.”
McConnell also said Friday:
—He’s optimistic his proposal to legalize hemp as an agricultural commodity will be part of the overall farm bill that emerges from the Senate. The versatile crop has been grown on an experimental basis in a number of states in recent years and Kentucky has been at the forefront of hemp’s comeback.
—He hopes Republican Gov. Matt Bevin runs for re-election in 2019. “I think he’s doing a great job,” McConnell told reporters. Bevin challenged McConnell in a bruising GOP Senate primary in 2014, and McConnell won in a rout. Bevin has yet to indicate whether he’ll seek another term as governor.
Associated Press Writer Dylan Lovan in Louisville contributed to this report.