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U.S. Steel CEO: 'We are in a trade war and have been in it for decades'

Steel coil being unloaded off a ship in Portage. U.S. Steel CEO Dave Burritt said the company still expects tariffs, though the administration has said they would be delayed.

The administration has delayed long-promised steps to block foreign steel after lobbying from groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with President Donald Trump telling the Wall Street Journal, "we don't want to do it at this moment."

But U.S. Steel remains optimistic more steel tariffs or quotas may be coming eventually. During a conference call with investors and analysts on Wednesday, U.S. Steel CEO David Burritt fired back at industry groups and economists who have warned that additional steel tariffs could provoke a trade war.

"People have to get this, even the free trader guys, of which I was one, back in the old days, before I really understood this. People worry about a trade war," Burritt said. "We are in a trade war and have been in it for decades and now is the time we have to fix it. So, you don't fix it with soft response. And I think this administration understands that. And at the appropriate time, they will take action."

American steelmakers have laid off thousands of workers in recent years, after cheap and often illegally subsidized foreign steel captured nearly a third of the domestic market share. U.S. steel companies have protested that the imports are dumped, or sold below cost with a long-term strategy of snatching away business.

"We believe and discussing with Wilbur Ross here recently with other steel executives, I think we all believe that there is going to be strong action taken. This administration understands what's at stake here," Burritt said. "This is something that's critical to our defense. This asset base, it needs to make sure that it isn't harmed by these imports. It has to be fixed. And I believe the administration will do the right thing in spite of the heavy lobbying from the free traders."

The administration has been pursuing a Section 232 investigation into whether foreign-made steel has been weakening national security, by limiting America's ability to produce steel needed to domestically manufacture tanks, warships and other instruments of war without having to import from foreign powers.

"You've got to have a strong U.S. steel manufacturing base," Burritt said. "You've got to have a strong U.S. steel for manufacturing for America. I think most people get that. And because of that, we believe the right decision will be made at the appropriate time."

Trump said in the interview with the Wall Street Journal that the administration could take steps on steel after first addressing other issues such as health care and tax cuts. U.S. Steel executives are hopeful that any action would dramatically curb the influx of foreign steel that depressed prices and led to the idling of facilities like U.S. Steel Granite Works in Illinois.

"The reality is it's going to be something that's got to be comprehensive and broad-based that will meaningfully adjust the imports form some duration," Burritt said. "I believe it should be a combination of quotas and tariffs. But we got to have at least tariffs and it's got to be significant."

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Business reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.