Protecting citizens from threats domestic and foreign is the most important function of government. Among those very threats is a government willing to concoct and aggrandize dangers in order to rationalize abuses of power, which Americans have seen in spades since 9/11. Justifying garden variety protectionism as an imperative of national security is the latest manifestation of this kind of abuse, and it will lead inexorably to a weakening of U.S. security.
The tariffs on imported steel and aluminum that President Trump formalized this afternoon derive, technically, from an investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. The statute authorizes the president to respond to perceived national security threats with trade restrictions. While the theoretical argument to equip government with tools to mitigate or eliminate national security threats by way of trade policy may be reasonable, this specific statute does little to ensure the president conducts a rigorous threat analysis or applies remedies that are proportionate to any identified threat. There are no benchmarks for what constitutes a national security threat and no limits to how the president can respond.
In delegating this authority to the president, Congress in 1962 (and subsequently) simply assumed the president would act apolitically and in the best interest of the United States. The consequences of this defiance of the wisdom of the Founders—this failure to imagine the likes of a President Trump—could be grave.