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Business Leaders Converge On Office Of U.S. Trade Representative Over Tariff Concerns


Business leaders converged today on the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in Washington. These are makers of clothing, strollers, flashlights and electronics, just to name a few. And they came to speak about what would happen if the government goes through with plans to impose tariffs on all Chinese goods.

Our next guest testified at today's hearing, Rick Helfenbein. He's the president and CEO of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. Welcome to the program. And did I get your name correctly though?

RICK HELFENBEIN: You absolutely got my name...

CORNISH: Good. This is NPR. All right, so let me quote something back to you from your written testimony. You say that you support efforts to fix the trade problems with China, but you don't want your members to be international pawns in a chess game. It sounds like you all have run out of patience.

HELFENBEIN: We are beyond having patience. You know, we've been threatened with this for some time, and now it's - they've nibbled at the edges. Now they just whacked us on the head with a tennis racket. So we are - quite frankly, we are panicked as a group for all those reasons that the American public really needs to understand. Forty-two percent of all apparel coming into America comes from China. Seventy-two percent of all footwear comes from China. And we don't exactly have a place to go, which means, quite frankly, that prices will go up, that sales will go down.

CORNISH: You're not planning on absorbing...

HELFENBEIN: And jobs will be lost.

CORNISH: ...Any of this cost?

HELFENBEIN: You know, for - some of our products have been hit with 10% over the last couple months, and we've been able to finesse that - is a really good word. You can't finesse 25%. You can't hide it. You have to add it to the cost. And you know, it's - you know, everyone says, oh, well, you just go somewhere else, or you make it in America. We'd love to make more in America. We don't have the capacity. It's not possible.

CORNISH: That is my next question. I assume the Trump administration would be saying, look; this is a great opportunity.

HELFENBEIN: Oh, it's a wonderful opportunity except it doesn't work. Made in America is 3% of the market, and it's been growing dramatically. It's up from 2.8% (laughter) to 3%. But you can't take all the clothes that we have and suddenly move them back here. Plus, you know, there just aren't factories to do it.

CORNISH: The argument from the president has been that tariffs work, to trust him, that he has a plan.

HELFENBEIN: Well, you know, they had a plan for the Hindenburg. That didn't work. They had a plan for the Titanic. That didn't work. This plan is not going to work. He's always liked tariffs. His big idea is, you know, to use them as a tool. If they're a surgical tool, that's fine. But he's starting to use him as a weapon of mass destruction, and we don't find it funny.

CORNISH: The president is a businessman, self-described - right? - and was always talking about, as a candidate, his appeal to the business community. Is this eroding some of that?

HELFENBEIN: Yeah, it's eroding it because when you when you go back to the rhetoric, it started in the campaign. They're stealing our jobs. And then it became the trade deficit. Well, jobs are at the lowest level in 50 years, and the trade deficit got worse. So we have totally lost confidence that this is a really good idea on how to solve our issues with China.

Make no mistake. There are issues with China but you solve them at the negotiating table. You don't do this. And think about the numbers 'cause that's the scariest part - $550 billion if you - that we import. You know what that is? That's a million dollars an hour, and you're going to tariff that at 25% and say, don't worry about the economy. I would worry about the economy.

CORNISH: One last thing - we just have a few seconds left. Is the White House hearing you, yes or no? What kind of response are you getting?

HELFENBEIN: You know, on and off they hear us. We certainly are doing our best to communicate with them, and our membership is communicating with them. But you know, Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution says this power actually belongs to Congress, yet the president - it was outsourced to the White House. The president is using it as a weapon. If it was a surgical tool, that's one thing, but a weapon of mass destruction we don't like.

CORNISH: Rick Helfenbein is president and CEO of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.