Jan 14, 2018

Trump softens on NAFTA

Trump at a rally in Iowa. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The White House will never admit this publicly, but the president is developing a softer attitude towards the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Five sources who've spoken privately with Trump about NAFTA say he's taking more seriously the risks of withdrawing the U.S. from the trade deal with Canada and Mexico.

A conga-line of Republican senators have met with the president and explained to him why they consider NAFTA so important to their states. Two arguments have helped change Trump's thinking:

  • Withdrawing from NAFTA might interrupt the stock market's record-breaking run under his presidency. When it comes to bragging rights, Trump views the Dow Jones Industrial average as a useful substitute for his poll numbers. Though he told the WSJ that he thought U.S. markets would go up if he terminated NAFTA, sources who've spoken with the president say that privately he’s less certain of that — and is loathe to jeopardize the stock market’s record-breaking streak.
  • Withdrawing from NAFTA would harm farmers and agricultural communities — whom Trump considers "my people."

Trump made two telling comments this week, which were buried under the deluge of porn star and "shithole" news:

  • He told a group of farmers in Nashville — an audience adorned with “I support NAFTA” pins — “On NAFTA, I’m working very hard to get a better deal for our country and for our farmers and for our manufacturers...It’s not the easiest negotiation, but we’re going to make it fair for you people again.” That's a much gentler tone than Trump usually uses to discuss the deal.
  • He told the WSJ this: “I would rather be able to negotiate [NAFTA]. We’ve made a lot of headway. We’re moving along nicely. Bob Lighthizer and others are working very hard, and we’ll see what happens.”

Why this matters: The White House will never publicly admit Trump is shying away from terminating NAFTA because a key part of his and Lighthizer’s negotiating strategy is to convince Canada and Mexico that he's about to withdraw. Trump has even discussed issuing a six-month NAFTA withdrawal notice as a way to gain leverage. But from our vantage point — at least under this president — NAFTA has never looked safer.

One cautionary note: With this president, nothing is ever off the table. And nobody close to Trump ever feels 100 percent secure when it comes to trade.

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