Trump flirts with re-entering massive trade pact
President Donald Trump mollified some of his most ardent trade critics on Thursday, opening up the door to re-engaging in a massive trade deal he campaigned against and reassuring them that a NAFTA renegotiation is on track.
After alarming free-trade Republicans with threats to levy tariffs on up to $150 billion in Chinese imports, Trump has reached a temporary truce with them. He told a group of farm-state senators, governors and House members that he directed economic adviser Larry Kudlow and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to examine whether re-entering the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact makes sense, a strong signal that he’s heard their concerns.
Story Continued Below
“He got it really loudly and clearly today from a lot of us,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of Republican leadership, after the meeting at the White House on Thursday. “If you want to send a message to China, the best way to do that is to start doing business with their competitors. So he was very open to it.”
That’s not to say Republicans are convinced Trump wasn’t just playing to his farm-state audience of lawmakers and governors whose states would be badly hurt by a trade war with China. Trump bashed TPP and NAFTA during the campaign, and his protectionist instincts haven’t changed since.
There’s also a basic issue of whether Trump’s words can be trusted. The president has mused in meetings about changing his position on high-profile issues, from immigration to gun control, only to do the opposite. At one point on Thursday he joked that he would say he’s going to terminate NAFTA if all the Republicans present covered their ears.
“But I’m not going to do that because I want everyone to be happy in this room, OK?” Trump said.
But even Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a frequent Trump critic, said he was cautiously optimistic after the discussion.
“We should be leading the TPP discussions. We shouldn’t be outside TPP,” Sasse said. “The fact that the main thing coming out of this meeting is he’s looking at re-entering TPP? That’s pretty good news.”
During the 2016 race, Trump decried the sweeping Pacific Rim trade agreement as “a rape of our country.” He withdrew the United States from the pact on his third day in office.
But in recent months he’s floated the idea that the U.S. could eventually rejoin. Most recently, he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January that he “would do TPP if it were a substantially better deal,” though he offered no specifics as to what he would like to see changed.
Immediately after Thursday’s meeting, the White House sought to keep expectations low. A senior administration official cautioned then that “it’s very early in the process” and that Trump was not committed to anything.
Rather than rejoin the sweeping 12-nation pact, the administration has shown greater interest in negotiating bilateral agreements with individual TPP members. Trump believes that doing so would win the U.S. more favorable terms. But the other members, Japan chief among them, have so far shown little interest in launching two-way talks with the Trump administration.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) said that she came away with the impression that Trump still prefers reaching individual agreements with TPP countries to entering a massive trade pact.
“I did not jump to the conclusion, as some of my colleagues did, that it was like: ‘Oh we’re getting back into TPP,’” she said. “Maybe I’ll be proven wrong on this, but I don’t see this big rush back into TPP.”