WASHINGTON — The White House continued to sow uncertainty on Sunday about the stiff tariffs President Trump said he would impose on steel and aluminum imports as key advisers defended the policy but left room for the president to change his plans.
Peter Navarro, an adviser and the architect of many of Mr. Trump’s campaign trade promises, confirmed on Sunday that the president would not exclude any country from the tariffs but said individual companies could apply for exemptions for certain products.
Mr. Trump rattled stock markets last week with his impromptu announcement that he would impose tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports and as business executives said the president would make no country exceptions.
“As soon as he starts exempting countries, he has to raise the tariff on everybody else,” Mr. Navarro said on “Fox News Sunday.” “As soon as he exempts one country, his phone starts ringing from the heads of state of other countries.”
But Mr. Navarro left room for change in the timing of the tariffs, which the president said would be signed this week. “Towards the end of the week,” Mr. Navarro said in a separate appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” when asked when the tariffs would be announced. “At the latest, it would be the following week.”
Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce, also appeared to leave room for the president to change his mind.
“Whatever his final decision is, is what will happen,” Mr. Ross said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “What he has said he has said. If he says something different, it’ll be something different.”
“If he for some reason should change his mind, then it will change,” Mr. Ross added, noting that he had no reason to believe that the president would do so.
That followed similar equivocation by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, who was asked on Friday whether Mr. Trump was committed to the tariffs he announced in a hastily arranged meeting on Thursday. “Never say never, but I think he’s pretty committed to moving this forward,” she said.
The announcement of tariffs on Thursday capped off a chaotic week at the White House, which has been bedeviled by staff departures and fierce disputes over policy. Some top White House staff were unaware the president was going to roll out these tariffs until he did so on national television.
Mr. Navarro and Mr. Ross have been among the staunchest defenders of the trade action, which would hit global trading partners like Canada and South Korea much more than China, which the administration has described as the primary culprit in putting American metal makers out of business. Both men backed the tariffs, saying the benefits to American metal makers would be considerable and the costs to industries that use those metals in their products — like automakers and food packagers — negligible.
Mr. Ross described the effect of the tariff as “a fraction of a penny on a can of beer.” Mr. Navarro clashed with Chris Wallace of Fox News, who tried to get the economic adviser to admit that those costs, when multiplied by all products that use steel and aluminum over the entire economy, would escalate into the billions of dollars. Mr. Navarro said he saw the costs as “insignificant” in the mission to preserve the steel and aluminum industries, which have seen factories pick up and move from the United States to cheaper parts of the world.
The White House’s plan continued to face fierce criticism, including from Republicans who believe free trade is in the interest of the economy.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, criticized the tariffs for falling more heavily on American allies than on China, which he said had earlier flooded the global market with steel.
Economists say the tariffs, if applied without exceptions, would harm allies like Canada, South Korea and the European Union, which export more steel to the United States than China does. Shortly after the tariffs were announced, the European Union responded by saying that it was already preparing to levy retaliatory tariffs on American products, including orange juice, bluejeans and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
“You’re letting China off the hook,” Mr. Graham said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “China wins when we fight with Europe.”
Joshua B. Bolten, the head of the Business Roundtable and chief of staff in the George W. Bush administration, called the tariffs “a huge mistake.”
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Mr. Bolten acknowledged that the president was trying to fulfill his campaign promises and help American workers in the steel and aluminum industries. But Mr. Bolten said the tariffs would cause “huge damage across broad sectors of the economy” that use steel and aluminum in their products, or that face retaliation from angry trading partners.
That did not dissuade Mr. Navarro, who doubled down on comments he made on Friday arguing that trading partners would not retaliate against the United States because they fear losing access to the valuable American market.
“All we are asking for is fair and reciprocal trade,” Mr. Navarro said on “Fox News Sunday.” “What we need to do here is keep the rhetoric down.”
Since the announcement, the president has only ratcheted up his language on trade, tweeting on five occasions about trade policy and the disadvantage he believes the United States faces. He criticized past trade policy, threatened to levy a tax on countries that retaliated against the tariffs and called for rebuilding the steel industry.
“When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win,” he tweeted on Saturday.