As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump called the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership “a disaster” and “a rape to our country.” As a newly minted president, he pulled the US out of the 12-nation trade deal, proclaiming the move was “a great thing for the American worker.”
Little more than a year later, Trump reportedly wants back in. The president has assigned US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and national economic adviser Larry Kudlow to look into getting the US back into the deal, White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said Thursday. “The President has consistently said he would be open to a substantially better deal,” she added.
The new effort to rejoin the TPP is the latest swing in the Trump White House’s volatile trade policy. His administration has opened up several fronts on trade, including one with China, another with Canada and Mexico, under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA,) and with South Korea, with which the US has another trade deal. Trump’s views on how to tackle each one have zigzagged wildly.
After the US defected from the TPP, other members of the trade deal went ahead with it. Last month, the 11 remaining countries signed an agreement in Chile, though it still has to be ratified by local officials in some countries. Rebranded as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, the new pact will cover an area that makes up 13% of the world economy and is home to 500 million people.
Some Trump officials had already floated the possibility of reentering the TPP earlier this year, as had Trump himself, but Thursday’s news caught observers and Trump allies by surprise. Mike Pompeo, the president’s pick to head the US Department of State, said he was unaware of any TPP action during his confirmation hearing.
The announcement was welcomed by lawmakers from some farming states. They have been pressing Trump to back down from his trade spat with China, which has threatened to raise tariffs on US agricultural products.
Trump’s request lands at a particularly busy time for the Office of the US Trade Representative, which is in the midst of NAFTA talks and evaluating a series of tariffs Trump has threatened to impose on China.
Whatever the US does on CPTPP is bound to affect those negotiations. The deal, which covers Pacific-rim countries in Asia and the Americas, was conceived as a counterbalance to China. Canada and Mexico are both signatories.
On Thursday, Trump provided no clues of how the US would proceed on CPTPP—or on NAFTA. Despite reports that the three NAFTA parties are getting closer to an agreement, there is no set timeline to finish, he said at a meeting with agricultural state leaders.
“I’ve told it to the Mexicans: We can negotiate forever,” he added. “Because as long as we have this negotiation going, nobody is going to build billion-dollar plants in Mexico, which is what they’ve been doing a lot. They have taken our auto industry by the throat.”
This story has been updated to include comment from the White House.