Jul 1, 2018

Exclusive: A leaked Trump bill to blow up the WTO

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Axios has obtained a leaked draft of a Trump administration bill — ordered by the president himself — that would declare America’s abandonment of fundamental World Trade Organization rules.

Why it matters: The draft legislation is stunning. The bill essentially provides Trump a license to raise U.S. tariffs at will, without congressional consent and international rules be damned.

The details: The bill, titled the "United States Fair and Reciprocal Tariff Act," would give Trump unilateral power to ignore the two most basic principles of the WTO and negotiate one-on-one with any country:

  1. The "Most Favored Nation" (MFN) principle that countries can't set different tariff rates for different countries outside of free trade agreements;
  2. "Bound tariff rates" — the tariff ceilings that each WTO country has already agreed to in previous negotiations.

"It would be the equivalent of walking away from the WTO and our commitments there without us actually notifying our withdrawal," said a source familiar with the bill.

  • "The good news is Congress would never give this authority to the president," the source added, describing the bill as "insane."
  • "It's not implementable at the border," given it would create potentially tens of thousands of new tariff rates on products. "And it would completely remove us from the set of global trade rules."

Behind the scenes: Trump was briefed on this draft in late May, according to sources familiar with the situation. Most officials involved in the bill's drafting — with the notable exception of hardline trade adviser Peter Navarro — think the bill is unrealistic or unworkable. USTR, Commerce and the White House are involved.

  • In a White House meeting to discuss the bill earlier this year, Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short bluntly told Navarro the bill was "dead on arrival" and would receive zero support on Capitol Hill, according to sources familiar with the exchange.
  • Navarro replied to Short that he thought the bill would get plenty of support, particularly from Democrats, but Short told Navarro he didn't think Democrats were in much of a mood to hand over more authority to Trump.

White House response: Spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said, "It is no secret that POTUS has had frustrations with the unfair imbalance of tariffs that put the U.S. at a disadvantage. He has asked his team to develop ideas to remedy this situation and create incentives for countries to lower their tariffs. The current system gives the U.S. no leverage and other countries no incentive."

  • But Walters signaled that we shouldn't take this bill as anything like a done deal. "The only way this would be news is if this were actual legislation that the administration was preparing to rollout, but it’s not," she said. "Principals have not even met to review any text of legislation on reciprocal trade."
  • Between the lines: Note the specificity of Walters' quote above. Trump directly requested this legislation and was verbally briefed on it in May. But he hasn't met with the principals to review the text. 

Be smart: Congress is already concerned with how Trump has been using his trade authorities — just look at recent efforts by Republican Sens. Bob Corker and Pat Toomey and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet to roll back the president's steel and aluminum tariffs.

  • The bottom line: As a smart trade watcher told me: "The Trump administration should be more worried about not having their current authority restricted rather than expanding authority as this bill would do."

Read the full text of the draft bill (Axios retyped the leaked document to protect our source):

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