LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) --  The chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party said Friday that “nobody likes” President Trump’s tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, levies which could pose a threat to Kentucky’s signature bourbon industry.

Mac Brown, a retired vice president of Louisville-based liquor giant Brown Forman Corp., said bourbon’s overseas growth “might slow” if allies such as the European Union follow through on threats to impose their own tariffs on American products in response to Trump’s move.

But Brown said any negative impact would be temporary, and he disputed that Trump’s trade moves have caused a “rift” within the GOP.

“I am not advocating for them at all,” Brown said of the tariffs. “I wish they weren’t going to happen, but it’s part of life.”

U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, told reporters Friday that the tariffs could harm many Kentucky industries besides bourbon, including automotive plants and agriculture.

"It's not good for Toyota, not good for farmers, not good for bourbon, and I'm among those to counsel the administration to try to avoid this, and I hope in the end we will be able to,” McConnell said.

McConnell said Trump has the authority to unilaterally impose the tariffs. "It's just that many of us feel it shouldn't be done," he said.

Trump’s Commerce Department said Thursday that, starting Friday, Canada, Mexico and the European Union would no longer be exempt from the tariffs, 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum.

Trump implemented the tariffs in March but granted temporary reprieves to the major U.S. trading partners.

Bevin, bourbon players skirt topic at bill signing  

Brown’s comments followed an event Friday in which Gov. Matt Bevin and key players in the bourbon industry carefully avoided wading into the tariffs issue.

They gathered in Louisville to ceremonially sign a new law allowing consumers to buy bourbon on distillery tours and have it shipped to their homes.

Bevin briefly answered an unrelated question before excusing himself from reporters on Friday.

In January, Bevin appeared alongside Century Aluminum executives at the company’s smelting plant in Hawesville, Ky., as they pushed Trump to take action to curb imports of aluminum and prop up the American industry.

Century Aluminum has been a major advocate of the tariffs.

But in March, Bevin said the tariffs have positive and negative effects, helping some companies while raising costs for others.

“It’s like squeezing a balloon. If you squeeze it, it pops out somewhere else. And there’s a ripple effect,” Bevin said.  

Gov. Matt Bevin ceremonially signed HB 400, which allows shipment of bourbon bought at distilleries, on June 1, 2018.

Rob Samuels, chief operating officer of Maker’s Mark and chairman of the board of the Kentucky Distillers Association, repeatedly declined to comment on the issue Friday.

“I’m into the product; I’m not into the policy,” he said.

With shipping giant UPS’ global air hub, Ford and Toyota auto plants and a thriving aerospace industry, Kentucky is particularly vulnerable to new trade barriers, said state Rep. Jerry Miller, a Republican who represents eastern Jefferson County in the Kentucky House of Representatives.

“I think everyone loses in a trade war – particularly a logistics center like Louisville, and an economy like Kentucky’s, which is very dependent on exports,” Miller said following the event Friday. “… I am definitely in the free trade camp. I think most Republicans are. I’m not a fan.”

Reach reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822, cotts@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook.

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