“He’s manically focused on these trade issues,” said Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist.
The flurry of activity amounts to a comeback by nationalists like Mr. Bannon, who views trade as crucial to Mr. Trump’s populist appeal but whose star has dimmed after clashes with globalist-minded aides like Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, and Gary D. Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs banker and lifelong Democrat who is head of the National Economic Council.
The outcome of the debate between nationalists and globalists remains far from settled. Last week the globalists appeared to be winning when the administration decided not to formally designate China a currency manipulator, despite Mr. Trump’s vow to do so during the campaign. Mr. Trump also offered President Xi Jinping of China other concessions on his trade agenda in return for China’s help in curbing North Korea’s nuclear program.
But the nationalists scored an early victory when Mr. Trump fulfilled one major trade promise only three days after taking office. He pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation trade pact negotiated by President Barack Obama, declaring that the era of multinational trade deals was over.
After that, the president’s “bark quieted down,” said Gary Clyde Hufbauer, a senior fellow and trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “Now the volume of the bark is going back up.”
“But these are still barks,” he added. “So far, no bites.”
Mr. Trump’s steel investigation is much broader than dozens of anti-dumping cases against China and other exporters filed by the Obama administration and its predecessors. It invokes a somewhat novel principle of using national security as the criterion for whether the imports are damaging the United States. The narrow argument is that a depleted American steel industry would be unable to produce enough steel to supply the military. More broadly, White House officials say an economically vibrant country is better able to defend itself.
It is unclear what steps Mr. Trump will take once the investigation is completed — within 270 days but probably sooner. The most obvious would be to impose tariffs on steel imports. Mr. Hufbauer said the United States could also use the results as leverage to persuade countries to accept voluntary export restraint agreements, such as those in the 1980s.
“We are groping here to see whether the facts warrant a comprehensive solution to deal with a very wide range of products from a very wide range of countries,” Wilbur L. Ross, the secretary of commerce, told reporters on Thursday. Mr. Ross’s department will run the investigation.
While the directive does not single out any country, the Chinese are clearly in the cross hairs. China accounts for only 2 percent of direct steel exports to the United States, but its excess capacity drives down steel prices…