There's chaos around the White House over Trump's big tariff announcement

  • President Donald Trump is set to make an announcement about new tariffs on Thursday.
  • But no one, even in the White House, seems to know what to expect.
  • The confusion suggests a volatile rollout of the massive trade policy.

President Donald Trump is scheduled to sign an order to impose new tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum at 3:30 p.m. ET on Thursday.

The only problem: No one seems to know what he is signing.

The details around the new tariffs, which function as taxes on imports of the metals, have been sparse. It's unclear whether the order Trump will sign Thursday will involve precise legal language or merely a notice of intent.

NBC News' Kristen Welker reported Thursday morning that the exact details of the tariffs were still being worked out and that the signing Thursday could be "symbolic."

Trump offered little specifics while teasing the event on Twitter.

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President Trump hosts business session with U.S. governors
U.S. President Donald Trump holds a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker listens as U.S. President Donald Trump holds a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (R) applauds as U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to hold a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump looks on as Washington State Governor Jay Inslee (R) engages him during a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump takes a sip of water during the 2018 White House business session with governors in the State Dining Room of the White House on February 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Washington State Governor Jay Inslee (L) listens to participants as U.S. President Donald Trump holds a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Florida Governor Rick Scott and U.S. President Donald Trump cross paths during a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House policy advisor Stephen Miller (L) speaks with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker after U.S. President Donald Trump held a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump speaks during the 2018 White House business session with state governors in the State dining Room of the White House on February 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Florida Governor Rick Scott listens to speakers as U.S. President Donald Trump holds a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump arrives for the 2018 White House business session with state governors in the State dining Room of the White House on February 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 26: Senior Advisor to the President Stephen Miller attends a business session with state governors hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump in the State Dining Room at the White House February 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. The National Governors Association is holding its annual winter meeting this week in Washington. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 26: Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R), Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson (2nd R) and fellow state governors stand and applaud at the conclusion of a business session hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump in the State Dining Room at the White House February 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. The National Governors Association is holding its annual winter meeting this week in Washington. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 26: State governors and members of U.S. President Donald Trump's cabinet attend a business session in the State Dining Room at the White House February 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. The National Governors Association is holding its annual winter meeting this week in Washington. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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"Looking forward to 3:30 P.M. meeting today at the White House," the president said. "We have to protect & build our Steel and Aluminum Industries while at the same time showing great flexibility and cooperation toward those that are real friends and treat us fairly on both trade and the military."

The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey also tweeted "no one knows" what would be announced.

The chaos over the announcement appears indicative of a rollout rife with discord and confusion.

Before Trump first announced he would impose the tariffs, White House officials told reporters that a White House meeting with steel and aluminum executives was simply a "listening session." Then, midway through talking to reporters last week, Trump announced the tariffs after all: a 25% tax on steel imports and 10% on aluminum imports.

That was only the start of a week filled with uncertainty.

The president's own party was caught off guard. Republicans in Congress said they were blindsided by the move and had been scrambling to persuade Trump to reverse course.

A meeting with business executives who would be harmed by the tariffs was in the works for Thursday and then canceled. Gary Cohn, Trump's top economic adviser, announced his resignation Tuesday in part because of his ideological split from Trump on tariffs.

Even the policy itself has changed wildly depending on the day.

As late as Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the tariffs will likely include exemptions for Canada and Mexico for "national security reasons." Sanders said other countries could see similar exemptions.

That represented a significant shift from White House officials' initial rhetoric. As recently as Sunday, top trade adviser Peter Navarro said on CNN that "at this point in time, there will be no country exclusions."

Canada and other allies were threatening to respond to Trump's move with trade restrictions of their own.

According to Politico's Andrew Restuccia, what exactly those exemption will look like is still up in the air. Among the possibilities being considered is a quota, or set limit on the amount of imports, for Canada and Mexico.

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