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Trump praises Harley-Davidson boycott, escalating feud with company in the crosshairs of his trade war

Harley-Davidson motorcycles at the Tokyo Motorcycle Show in Tokyo on March 23, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Kiyoshi Ota.

President Donald Trump on Sunday leveraged the office of the president of the United States against a private American company for seeking to insulate itself from his trade war.

"Great!" he wrote of purported plans by customers of Harley-Davidson to boycott the venerable motorcycle company over its plan to move production of motorcycles sold in Europe to factories outside the U.S. The firm, founded in Milwaukee in 1903, estimated that it would lose $100 million annually from steel tariffs imposed by the president in March.

Trump tweeted "Many @harleydavidsonowners plan to boycott the company if manufacturing moves overseas. Great! Most other companies are coming in our direction, including Harley competitors. A really bad move! U.S. will soon have a level playing field, or better."

His early-morning tweet followed a meeting Saturday with "Bikers for Trump" at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey. About 180 members of the group chanted "Four more years!" and "USA!" as they entered the ornate ballroom, according to the Associated Press. The president thanked them and praised their rides, calling them "the most beautiful bikes anyone's ever seen."

As recently as last year, Trump extolled the company, saying in a meeting with executives in the Roosevelt Room that he considered Harley-Davidson a "true American icon, one of the greats."

His view changed when the firm's leaders announced this summer that they would use overseas facilities for production of bikes headed for sale in Europe. The company said it would not change its longstanding policy of not selling motorcycles in the U.S. that are made overseas.

Trump gambled that even those fond of the brand would stick by his side, threatening in June, "If they move, watch, it will be the beginning of the end."

His comments over the weekend marked an escalation of that rhetoric - and represented the first time since he became president that he has called on Twitter for a "boycott" of an American company, media organizations aside. He said "we should boycott Fake News CNN" on Twitter last year, and he reposted a message calling for a boycott of the NFL for failing to take more severe action against players who kneel during the national anthem.

Before he took the oath of office, Trump frequently called for boycotts. He has urged his followers to abstain from companies such as Macy's and Apple and has aimed his ire at entire countries, writing in 2014 "Boycott Mexico."

Trump seemed to reach a truce last month with leaders of the European Union to avert an escalating trade war, agreeing with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to hold back on proposed car tariffs and try to resolve their conflict over steel and aluminum. Still, he vowed earlier this month to move forward with tariffs as a central feature of his economic policy, denigrating his critics as "fools." He said the new levies would prove effective in forcing other nations to renegotiate trade deals with the U.S. As tension with European countries ebbed, it escalated with China.

Trump's attack on Harley-Davidson drew opposing reactions in Wisconsin, revealing the extent to which the president has repositioned the two parties on trade.

Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin wrote on Twitter that Wisconsin businesses "need better trade deals, not tweets and trade wars," signing her message with her initials to indicate her personal authorship. One of the Republicans vying to replace her, Kevin Nicholson, fired back at the incumbent Democrat, writing, "we do need better trade deals, not the ones engineered by you and other members of the political class."

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This article was written by Isaac Stanley-Becker, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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