Thursday morning, President Trump revealed that he has directed his administration to look into rejoining the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, indicating an extreme U-turn in his position and rhetoric around the TPP deal itself and international trade overall.
The Trans Pacific Partnership, a deal Trump once described as a “rape of our country,” is a multicountry trade agreement in which the U.S. participated under President Obama. Trump rooted his campaign in correcting what he saw as unfair trade practices that were hurting American workers and manufacturers, and, very soon after taking office, Trump signed an executive order that withdrew the U.S. from the partnership.
The proposal came during a White House meeting with lawmakers and governors after Sen. John Thune argued that the TPP deal would be the best way to put pressure on China. The argument speaks to Trump’s constant targeting of Chinese trade practices, which he characterized as “unfair.”
Like many other Trump decisions, the call to reconsider American participation in the TPP caught his advisers by surprise. “This whole trade thing has exploded … We’ll put a team together, but we haven’t even done—I mean, it just happened a couple of hours ago,” said Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser.
Some believe the president’s about-face on the deal, as well as a quieting of his threats to withdraw from NAFTA, is fueled by complaints from Republican lawmakers that the impact of his harsh stance on trade and impending tariffs would harm farmers and businesses within their states.
Thursday evening, the president further clarified his desired conditions for re-entering the agreement via Twitter, saying he would only rejoin if the deal was “substantially better” than the one negotiated by President Obama.
While Trump may want more concessions, and rejoining the pact would greatly aid American farmers and industries, those who remained in the partnership have long left the U.S. in the rear view. The TPP member nations have spent the 15 months since the country’s exit renegotiating the deal and signed a massive multinational deal this year. Trying to wedge any further concessions desired by Trump would be very hard to do, and that’s if the nations even want or can provide them. Japan, whom Trump called out by name in his tweet, has stated that it has given all the concessions it can to America, and the nation’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, has bemoaned any attempts to alter the “well-balanced pact” to satiate Trump’s demands.
Before coming to the bargaining table, it needs to be known whether the president is even truly considering returning to the deal or if his comments during the meeting were just lip service to quiet concerns for a time. “What he tells people in a room to make them happy does not always translate into administration policy,” said senior fellow at the Chicago Council of Global Affair Phil Levy.