US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Wednesday said the United States is not seeking a trade war and the decision to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports was "thought through."
"We're not looking for a trade war," Ross told the CNBC cable network, speaking a day after President Donald Trump's top economic adviser Gary Cohn resigned in apparent protest over the controversial tariffs.
"We're going to have sensible relations with our allies," he added, arguing that a jump in steel prices could be avoided with increased domestic production of the commodity.
Trump's move on tariffs has infuriated US trade partners, but he says he was elected to protect American workers and industries harmed by trade policies.
Ross played down the Cohn resignation, insisting "this is not some sort of a palace coup." He said the departing economic adviser "has been contemplating some sort of a move for some little while."
The 57-year-old former Goldman Sachs executive lobbied passionately against the tariffs, but lost out to a decidedly more protectionist team that included Ross and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro.
"This is not going to be a big trade war," Ross said Wednesday. "The president would not have indicated flexibility on Canada and Mexico if he just wanted to do very extreme things."
"This is an idea that's been thought through over time."
Trump said Canada and Mexico could be exempted from steel and aluminum tariffs if they showed greater willingness to revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to address US interests.
Shortly after Ross delivered his comments US foreign trade figures for the month of January showed a widening of the trade deficit, which reached its highest level in nine years at $56.6 billion in one month.
Trump took to Twitter Wednesday to emphasize that the annual US trade deficit had reached $800 billion last year -- which he blamed on "bad policies & leadership" from his White House predecessors.