Donald Trump wants tariffs. Any tariffs.
If the president's recent demands for trade penalties against China are any indication, stiff tariffs or minimum prices on imported solar panels are increasingly likely.
It's a worrying sign for the majority of the U.S. solar industry.
On Sunday, Axios' Jonathan Swain reported an inside account of a recent Oval Office meeting. According to the story -- "undisputed by the White House" -- Trump demanded of his economic advisers: "Bring me some tariffs."
"I understand, you want tariffs," said Chief of Staff John Kelly to the president in the meeting.
Trump strongly asserted his desire for trade penalties of any kind: "John, let me tell you why they didn't bring me any tariffs. [...] I know there are some people in the room right now that are upset. I know there are some globalists in the room right now. And they don't want them, John, they don't want the tariffs. But I'm telling you, I want tariffs."
In the White House, there's a battle over Trump's mind between the protectionists and the "globalists." And the protectionists have the upper hand.
This latest reporting on Trump's thinking may give us insight into how he'll rule on solar trade penalties, assuming the International Trade Commission (ITC) determines that imported cells and modules have caused "serious injury" to domestic solar manufacturers.
All eyes are on the trade commission and White House after two manufacturers, Suniva and SolarWorld, filed a rare petition under Section 201 of the 1974 Trade Act, arguing that imports of solar equipment have decimated their chances to compete. The petition was submitted in May.
In mid-August, around 40 witnesses flocked to the ITC for a hearing in Washington to argue for and against tariffs.
“The data set forth in the commission’s staff report reveals a domestic industry that is literally on the precipice of being extinguished. U.S. module manufacturers suffered net losses exceeding a billion dollars over a five-year period. If this isn’t serious injury, then that concept has no meaning," argued Matthew McConkey, an attorney for Suniva, at the hearing.
Trade commissioners will issue their ruling on September 22. If commissioners determine injury (which is likely in a Section 201 case), they'll send recommendations to the president's desk. In theory, his decision to implement penalties would come in late January 2018.
No one in the White House has indicated that Trump is paying attention to this specific case. And given the unpredictable nature of the White House, it's impossible to say whether he'll stick to the script when it comes to timing.
However, his demands for tariffs -- any tariffs at all -- are a sign that he's determined to back up his earlier campaign rhetoric.
The vast majority of solar companies and advocates are against the petition. Opponents of penalties far outnumbered supporters at the August ITC hearing.
The solar industry's national trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, says that tens of thousands of jobs could be lost due to a steep drop-off in demand. Suniva and SolarWorld dispute those figures.
According to GTM Research, the penalties requested by Suniva and SolarWorld could slash solar installations by more than 50 percent in 2019. Module prices could double, setting the installed cost of solar projects back by years.
Even local officials in Georgia -- the home state of Suniva -- are worried about the consequences.
Trade penalties would "deprive consumers of the benefit of competitively priced solar projects,” said Lauren "Bubba" McDonald, a Georgia public utilities commissioner, speaking at the hearing. “Any tariffs imposed would distort the market, threatening tens of thousands of American jobs.”
Domestic equipment producers are lining up against the tariffs too.
"The tariffs requested by Suniva would more than double the price of solar panels in the U.S., undercutting the cost-competitiveness of solar and reversing its high growth trajectory," wrote a group of 27 U.S. manufacturers last week, in a letter to the International Trade Commission.
The companies represent a combined total of 5,700 domestic workers. "We would be forced to cut our operations, seriously endangering manufacturing jobs at our factories," they argued.
Domestic utility-scale solar developers are already stocking up on solar modules, causing prices to rise by more than 20 percent.
In the days before leaving the White House, Former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon said in an interview that America is at war with China. "The economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that," he said.
It was another peek into the tussle over trade between factions within the administration.
Bannon will no longer sit in meetings with the president, but he may have more influence on the president's thinking now that he's back at Breitbart News.
"You should expect Bannon and his allies to argue that what's been done so far isn't enough, and that Trump needs to treat China as an adversary in an economic war," wrote Jonathan Swain at Axios.