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Head Of South Carolina's Chamber Of Commerce On Escalating Trade War


This week, the Trump administration announced tariffs on Chinese imports. Now, increasingly, the president's trade policies are putting many Republican politicians and business leaders in a bit of an awkward spot. Many see merit in the president's arguments and want to give his tough policies a chance to work. But they're also seeing some negative impact on businesses in their communities. And one person in the crosshairs of all of this is Ted Pitts. He's president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and joins us this morning. Mr. Pitts, welcome.

TED PITTS: Thank you, David.

GREENE: I just want to get to a case study in your state. Element Electronics - they make TVs. They announced that they're going to have to lay off all 126 of their workers. They say they need parts from China. They can't afford the tariffs on these parts. What is your message to this company right now?

PITTS: You know, basically, if you look at South Carolina as a whole, we've been successful in diversified manufacturing. And Element Electronics is one of those examples. When Governor Haley was in charge, she and Secretary Hitt helped recruit Element Electronics to South Carolina under a Walmart program that was made in America. They were moving manufacturing to the U.S. to sell American-made goods in their stores. You know, obviously, with the tariff issue going on, some components that go into the television that Element made, you know, had a tariff put on them. So therefore, the cost went up. And you know, they can't deliver the product to Walmart at the negotiated price. So you know, they're a bystander of the trade conflict we find ourselves in.

GREENE: So what are you going to do for them? Or what can be done for them?

PITTS: You know, when you talk about what can be done for them, I mean, the business model has to work. And that's really what comes down to this trade issue and the conflict we see with multiple countries around the world. You know, South Carolina businesses have been treated unfairly. So there has been unfair trade practices for a long time. And China cheats, and people know that. It's well-documented.

So when you look at companies in South Carolina, they're happy the administration is tackling the issue of unfair trade. And I think we would just say - and we've said - companies have said - is we need to do it in a direct, negotiated approach and not get into a brawl trade war where you have retaliatory tariffs going back and forth. And you know, there are countries that are bad actors. And there are industries that have bad actors inside of them, but we need to deal with those. But we need to deal with them in a direct approach. So...

GREENE: So you're saying the president provoking these trade wars has not been an approach that you feel is working.

PITTS: You know, what I would say is the president's approach some have praised and said that's only the way you're going to get people to the table. You know, I think companies that are affected by this approach would tell you they would much rather have a direct negotiated approach where the U.S. and China sit down and negotiate fair trade agreements and we hold China accountable. But in the big picture, I would tell you that the state is uniformly aware that there are unfair trade practices need to be dealt with.

Where there is some difference of opinions is how you deal with those unfair trade practices. Some have said this is the only approach - the president's approach is the only approach that's going to get a response. And others have said, you know, there's going to be too much pain through this process and that we need to have a country leadership - the administration - that will sit down and deal with the bad actors one on one and make sure that we have a more fair process as goods go back and forth between China, for example.

GREENE: Can I just ask you about the political dynamic here? I mean, Congressman Mark Sanford recently lost his primary. Many believe it was because of his criticism of President Trump. I mean, are there political pressures here? Is it tough for a congressional delegation - and even business leaders like yourself - to outspokenly criticize the president because you don't want to get on the wrong side of this White House?

PITTS: I don't believe that Congressman Sanford lost directly because of this. I mean, there's a lot of things at play that go. Katie Arrington's a good candidate. What I would tell you is politically it is very difficult for politicians. You do not want to - even companies - you do not want to criticize this president because he attacks you back. So companies and politicians have chosen to use a probably more productive approach, which is work behind the scenes with the administration to make their case. And that's where we think you get the best results. And South Carolina's congressional delegation as well as South Carolina companies are doing that.

GREENE: Ted Pitts is the president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce. Thanks a lot. We appreciate it.

PITTS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.