State, local officials say Trump should rethink his remark about German automakers

When BMW unveiled its the-new X4 sport utility vehicle in 2014, a model car sported a “Made In SC” plate.
When BMW unveiled its the-new X4 sport utility vehicle in 2014, a model car sported a “Made In SC” plate. FILE PHOTOGRAPH

Business and political leaders in South Carolina — where German automakers have invested billions — were taken aback Friday by reports that President Trump made derogatory remarks about German auto sales in the United States.

The head of the state Chamber of Commerce said he is “a little surprised and disappointed” by Trump’s remarks published Thursday. Perhaps the president needs to be “educated” about the benefits German carmakers have brought to South Carolina, Ted Pitts told The State newspaper.

BMW operates a major manufacturing facility in the Upstate, and Daimler AG is expanding a plant in North Charleston. German-owned companies employ thousands throughout the Palmetto State.

“I’m a little surprised that the president has chosen to attack German (auto) manufacturers ... that have been good to South Carolina,” Pitts, once the chief of staff to then-Gov. Nikki Haley, told The State newspaper. “All he would have to do is come spend a day or two in South Carolina and he would learn how we truly value them.”

Multiple media outlets reported that Trump said, “The Germans are bad, very bad,” based on reporting from the German news magazine Der Spiegel, about a conversation with EU Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk. “Look at the millions of cars they’re selling in the US. Terrible. We will stop this,” Trump reportedly said of the Germans.

The “very bad” translation, USA Today reported, comes from the Cambridge Dictionary. Google Translate says Trump’s comments actually translate to “evil, very evil.”

On Friday morning, White House press secretary Sean Spicer disputed the article. He wrote on Twitter, “Except it’s not true: Juncker says Trump was not aggressive on German trade surplus.”

Spartanburg County Council chairman Jeff Horton is a lifelong resident of the county and was a council member when BMW began investing in its Greer plant in the early 1990s.

“If he did say that, I would say that he’s said some stupid things,” said Horton, a Republican. “But this is the stupidest thing he’s said.

“BMW pulled this county out of the doldrums after textiles left. I’ll defend BMW all day long,” Horton said, describing the German automaker as a textbook example of a good corporate partner.

The company’s property in Greer straddles the line between Spartanburg and Greenville counties.

BMW’s direct investments in South Carolina just between 2011 and 2016 amounted to $4.6 billion, according to figures from the state’s industry-recruiting agency, the Commerce Department. The company also has created more than 10,000 jobs, according to the department.

Altogether, the Palmetto State has more than 160 German companies in more than 200 locations, the agency said.

Allen Smith, the president of the Spartanburg County Chamber of Commerce, said it’s too early to assess whether Trump’s remarks will hurt recruitment of international firms to his county.

“I think that people in positions of power need to be doing and saying things to help us continue to create jobs,” Smith said, citing that Spartanburg County alone has benefited from what he said is $4.4 billion in new investment between 2012 and last year. Much of that total was from international companies, he said.

When asked about the president’s remarks, the state Commerce Department on Friday afternoon issued a statement saying “(W)e remain committed to ensuring a business-friendly climate.

“South Carolina works hard to provide industries, from every corner of the globe like BMW – which was also the single biggest exporter of vehicles from the U.S., producing more than 400,000 vehicles in its South Carolina plant ....”

Some 70 percent of the vehicles BWM builds in its Upstate plant are exported through the port of Charleston, Pitts said.

The S.C. Democratic Party condemned Trump’s remarks.

“While Donald Trump relies heavily on Russia for his economic success, South Carolina relies heavily on Germany for ours,” party chairman Trav Roberston told The State. “If he were to follow through on his stated intention to stop the U.S.-German automotive trade, the economic consequences on South Carolina would be truly devastating, costing our state tens of thousands of good paying jobs.”

Trump won South Carolina’s pivotal, first-in-the South primary last year. That victory helped propel him in the crowded GOP field and arguably legitimized Trump’s candidacy.

Daimler, Mercedes-Benz’s parent company, is in the middle of a $500 million expansion of its North Charleston plant that will build small vans. Full production is slated to begin next year.

“Instead of criticizing Germany, we ought to be looking at what they’re doing,” Pitts said of the size of that nation’s auto industry. “We’re third (globally). They’re first.

“We think this is just an education issue, getting this president spun up on what is really going on in the United States,” Pitts said.

Trump’s irritation over German car sales isn’t new. In January, while still president-elect, Trump told the German newspaper Bild he wanted a hefty import tax on BMWs assembled in Mexico to encourage manufacturers to move to the U.S.

“If you want to build cars in the world, then I wish you all the best,” Trump said then. “You can build cars for the United States, but for every car that comes to the USA, you will pay a 35 percent tax.”

“I would tell BMW that if you are building a factory in Mexico and plan to sell cars to the USA, without a 35 percent tax, then you can forget that,” Trump said at the time.

Despite the president’s remarks, the U.S. can’t negotiate a deal with Germany alone. It has to deal with the entire European Union, because Germany is a member.

German chancellor Angela Merkel reminded Trump of that when they met in March, noting that trade agreements with the U.S. have “not always been all that popular in Germany either.”

S.C. Republican Party chairman Drew McKissick issued a statement Friday that did not address Trump’s remarks this week. “Our South Carolina Republican governors have done amazing work bringing jobs from all over the world to South Carolina and now that we have a job-creating president, I am more excited for the future,”

Top 5 German investments in S.C.

Since 2011, here are the companies that have invested the most and brought nearly 5,000 jobs to the state.

▪  $1.9 billion from BMW Manufacturing Co., which added 1,800 jobs in Spartanburg and Greenville counties.

▪  $500 million from Daimler AG, parent company of Mercedes Benz, which will add 1,300 jobs in its North Charleston van-production plant.

▪  $500 million from Continental Tire the Americas in Sumter County, which added 1,620 jobs.

▪  $175 million from Robert Bosch LLC in Dorchester County, which will add 150 jobs.

▪  $22.5 million from ZF Transmissions in Laurens County, which will add 545 jobs.

SOURCE: S.C. Department of Commerce