President Donald Trump and Harley-Davidson have been feuding ever since Harley said it was going to move some production overseas because of Trump’s trade war. But it’s been mostly one-sided, as Harley has repeatedly declined to comment on the situation even after Trump backed a Harley boycott. Until today, that is.
The occasion was Harley’s 115th anniversary event in Milwaukee, where company executives touted its upcoming electronic bike and its plans to try and enlist millions of new riders as its core demographic, Baby Boomers, age out.
Dave Cotteleer, vice president and managing director for the U.S. market, spoke first, after a question and a long and awkward pause.
“Harley-Davidson is about inclusion. Harley-Davidson is about togetherness. Harley-Davidson is about community. Harley-Davidson is about freedom,” Cotteleer said in part. “We, as a company, we strive to be absolutely apolitical, because what’s important to us is that spirit of togetherness and riding. That’s what this celebration is about, and that’s what we’re focused on this weekend.”
Later, Marc McAllister, vice president and managing director of international sales, reiterated that Harley was an “apolitical organization” but was a bit more explicit on the trade war.
“We believe in a fair playing field for all competitors in the marketplace, so we’ve been working with the administration here as well as the administrations in other countries to try and strive for a fair playing field,” McAllister said, referring to the tariffs.
If Harley’s been reluctant to comment on the situation until now, it’s easy enough to see why, as many of the riders coming in for the celebration are also Trump supporters, with Trump paraphernalia not hard to come by. (A lot of that is detailed in this recent New York Times story that goes into the challenge Harley faces, coming up against a president heavily supported by probably the bulk of its customers.)
Still, the company wants to survive by expanding sales overseas. That’s something which the tariffs have complicated hugely, as Harley was specifically targeted by the European Union—retaliatory tariffs hit the heartland, and Trump’s base.
McAllister basically said what every automaker has told the Trump administration, the “fair playing field” here being, presumably, free trade. But Harley is Harley, an American icon, just out here trying to survive even without getting into a fight with Trump. McAllister also defended moving some of Harley’s production overseas.
“Obviously, we would like nothing more than to build every motorcycle in the United States if we had that [option],” he said. “We are continuing to focus on building motorcycles in the United States for the United States and as a business we have to make tough choices to make sure we are competitive in markets outside the United States.”
And while these are Harley’s first public remarks since for months on the issue, they largely echo what it’s CEO said in an internal memo obtained by CNBC a couple weeks ago.
These are all reasonable things to say and do, but Harley has probably found that it’s uncomfortable feud with Trump is asymmetrical, since all Trump has to do is tweet to stir things up. Like this a few weeks ago:
Where do we go from here? A new Trump tweet is probably just around the corner, even if the tariffs likely won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.