Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s full-throttled love of Harley-Davidson motorcycles has been intertwined with his rising political career, but now he must navigate revved up criticism of the Milwaukee-based company from President Donald Trump.
The two Republicans plan to share a stage Thursday at a groundbreaking for the Foxconn Technology Group’s $10 billion liquid-crystal display factory in Racine County — an event that could prompt some awkward moments in the wake of Harley’s announcement to produce some of its signature motorcycles overseas instead of the U.S.
The Milwaukee company said it came to its decision because of retaliatory tariffs it faces in an escalating trade dispute between President Trump and the European Union.
The president, seeking to deflect blame for the company’s decision, on Tuesday tweeted that if Harley goes through with its plans, “it will be the beginning of the end — they surrendered, they quit! The Aura will be gone and they will be taxed like never before!”
Trump was referring to tariffs Harley-Davidson would face on motorcycles produced overseas and shipped back to the U.S. for sale. The company had no immediate response to that and other tweets Tuesday from the president.
Walker has avoided directly criticizing Trump on the issue, repeatedly saying instead that no tariffs would be good for Wisconsin manufacturers and farmers. He hasn’t spelled out what he would do to further that policy and his spokeswoman repeated that same position Tuesday when asked to react to Trump’s tweets.
“Governor Walker believes there should be no tariffs or trade barriers as the President stated earlier this month at the G7 summit,” Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg said. “When there’s a level playing field, American workers and businesses win.”
Walker owns a 2003 Harley Road King motorcycle that he’s driven across the state to promote tourism and his own political ambitions. When Walker officially launched his presidential run in 2015, about half of his stops in the first week were at Harley shops and he exclusively wore motorcycle boots. At a presidential debate that year, the motorcycle-boot wearing Walker said his Secret Service nickname as president would be “Harley.”
In an October re-election campaign launch video touting his record, Walker rides his Harley and asks the viewer, “Are you with me?”
Trump made fun of Walker for his love of motorcycles during the presidential race. At a rally in Janesville in 2016, Trump said: “He doesn’t look like a motorcycle guy to me. I’m sorry.”
Walker and Trump made amends, and the governor last year invited the president to take a ride on a Harley after he canceled a visit to the company’s headquarters.
Harley executives later traveled to Washington for a meeting with Trump, who said they told him of the difficulty they faced selling motorcycles abroad. Later Tuesday, Trump told reporters that the company was using the tariff situation “as an excuse.”
“I don’t like that because I’ve been very good to Harley-Davidson and they used it as an excuse,” he said. “And I think the people who ride Harleys aren’t happy with Harley-Davidson and I wouldn’t be either.”
Harley has long lobbied against retaliatory tariffs, saying they put the company at a competitive disadvantage.
Trump recently imposed steep tariffs on aluminum and steel imported from Canada, Mexico and Europe in his bid to level the trade playing field and reduce trade deficits between the U.S. and its trade partners. But those trade partners feel insulted by Trump and have decided to retaliate.
Trump denied Tuesday that his trade policy was to blame for Harley’s decision.
Trump will get a chance to comment on the situation in Wisconsin on Thursday, when he joins Walker for the groundbreaking of a Foxconn Technology Group factory 30 miles south of Milwaukee, where Harley is based. The event was supposed to be a chance for Walker to highlight the Taiwanese company’s plans to invest up to $10 billion in the state and create 13,000 jobs.
Instead of talking about Harley on Tuesday, Walker tried to shift the focus to Foxconn, tweeting: “Foxconn’s state-of-the-art products will be made in the U.S.A. — proudly in the state of Wisconsin!”
Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, whose Wisconsin district includes Harley’s plant in Menomonee Falls, said the EU has a long history of abusive trade practices but urged Trump to address abuses without harming jobs in the U.S.
“It’s unfortunate that such a strong Wisconsin company like Harley-Davidson has to bear the brunt of this trade dispute,” Sensenbrenner said. “I understand that the President is a tough negotiator, but I urge him to consider a more targeted approach that protects American workers and businesses.”