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Trump Gets DOJ’s Nod to Keep Auto-Tariff Report Under Wraps

Jenny Leonard

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The U.S. Department of Justice said the White House can use executive privilege to decline to release a Commerce Department report advising President Donald Trump on proposed tariffs on imports of automobiles and car parts.

Commerce handed the analysis to Trump’s office in February and the findings have been kept private since. Congress sought to accelerate its disclosure by requiring the Secretary of Commerce to publish it by Jan. 19.

“We conclude that the executive branch may rely on the constitutional doctrine of executive privilege to decline to release the report at the deadline,” Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel said in a letter dated Jan. 17 and posted Tuesday. “The report is a confidential presidential communication, the disclosure of which would risk impairing ongoing diplomatic efforts to address a national-security concern.”

The White House declined to comment and a spokesperson for the Commerce Department echoed the Justice Department, saying the secretary isn’t providing the document “because releasing it now would interfere with the president’s ability to protect confidential executive branch communications and could interfere with ongoing negotiations.”

The Commerce study focused on whether to impose tariffs on the auto imports under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act, which allows for duties without a vote by Congress if imports are deemed a national-security threat. It was the same law the Trump administration used to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

Modifying Law

Those duties have been controversial and have drawn legal challenges in U.S. courts and at the World Trade Organization. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley has been working on a bipartisan bill to modify the Section 232 law after many lawmakers complained about the White House’s use of the statute.

“By refusing to make public the statutorily-required report on automobile tariffs, the Department of Commerce is willfully violating federal law,” said Senator Pat Toomey. “This is unacceptable, and my staff and I are evaluating the potential for corrective action to compel the rightful release of this report.”

Driving American Jobs, a coalition representing auto manufacturers, dealers, distributors and retailers, is concerned about labeling imports a national-security threat.

“Increasing taxes on auto and auto-parts imports would significantly harm the economy and put American jobs at risk,” it said in an emailed statement. “We urge the administration to remove the threat of tariffs and give economic certainty to the 10 million Americans whose livelihoods depend on the auto industry.”

Here for America, which represents the U.S. operations of international automobile manufacturers who have invested $88 billion in U.S. production facilities, said it was “disappointed” in the decision and that “there’s no compelling reason not to disclose the report to the public.”

The Justice Department decision found that disclosure of the report would risk interfering with executive branch deliberations over what additional actions, if any, may be necessary to address the threat.

“Although Congress may have a legitimate interest in ultimately reviewing the report to understand the basis for the president’s exercise of his section 232 authority, that generalized interest does not overcome the constitutionally rooted confidentiality interests that justify withholding the report until the resolution of diplomatic negotiations and action by the president,” according to the letter.

(Updates with comment from Driving American Jobs in eighth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Justin Sink and Chris Strohm.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jenny Leonard in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Margaret Collins at, Ana Monteiro

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