President Trump met with the National Association of Manufacturers at the White House on March 31, and lauded his administration's work to cut business regulations and grow manufacturing jobs. (The Washington Post)

“I’m going to rip up those trade deals,” Donald Trump promised when he was campaigning for president, and about no deal was he more emphatic than the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed by George H.W. Bush and ratified under Bill Clinton. “NAFTA has been a disaster for our country. NAFTA has to be totally gotten rid of,” he said. “So, all of that will change with me and what I tell people is you’re going to have jobs.”

The pledge seemed particularly resonant in areas of the industrial Midwest, where people were excited by the prospect of the factories of yesteryear returning, with their high wages and good benefits. At the time, there were many critics who pointed out that scrapping NAFTA wouldn’t bring back those manufacturing jobs. But even if they were right, Trump’s promise was still clear.

Well, now he’s president, and guess what? It turns out that he may not end up keeping that promise, after all:

The Trump administration will seek modest — but numerous — changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to a draft of a letter sent to Congress last week, displaying a much more conventional approach to trade negotiation than the dramatic changes President Trump had suggested he planned to seek.

The draft letter suggests a much more diplomatic tone than Trump has threatened to use during NAFTA renegotiations. It says, among other things, that the White House would look to strengthen cooperation under the World Trade Organization, an international group that the Trump administration had suggested in the past it might not abide by.

The draft letter also reinforces that Canada and Mexico are the United States’ two largest export markets, and that the countries have “shared borders” and “shared goals, shared histories and cultures, and shared challenges.”

The administration is required to send this letter 90 days before it starts renegotiating the deal, and the letter itself is somewhat vague, according to what’s being reported. Furthermore, we don’t know what will happen in the negotiation; it’s possible that the countries would be unable to agree on terms, and if that were to happen, either the agreement would stay as it is or Trump could pull out of it unilaterally (the president does have that power). But this letter suggests an administration that’s hardly determined to pull out of NAFTA.

Not only that, one particularly controversial provision of the treaty, known as investor-state dispute settlement, is not targeted for elimination. As the New York Times describes it:

Rather than scrap Nafta’s arbitration tribunals, regarded by some free-trade critics as secretive bodies that give private corporations unbridled power to challenge foreign governments outside the court system, the letter proposed to ‘maintain and seek to improve procedures’ for settling disputes.

So if you thought the Trump administration was going to rein in corporate power to do a favor for workers, you’ll be disappointed yet again.

We can’t predict the future, but if this first move is any indication, it appears that rather than scrapping NAFTA, the administration is going to negotiate some minor technical changes that attempt to give the United States some more advantageous terms while keeping the basic structure in place. Which may be perfectly fine from a policy standpoint, but it’s not anything like what Trump promised. Trump is also signing two executive orders today to study our trade deficits and see what might be done about them. Again: perfectly fine, but not exactly the radical changes he said he’d undertake. 

This all fits in well with a pattern that we’ve seen repeated over and over as the Trump candidacy turned into the Trump presidency. Here’s how it works.

  1. Trump makes a grandiose promise that sounds great to at least some voters but no serious person believes.
  2. Trump runs headlong into reality and discovers that doing what he promised would either be impossible or disastrous.
  3. Trump initiates a hasty retreat from his promise.

So for instance, Trump said he’d build a big, beautiful wall across the entire southern border, and Mexico would pay for it. In practice, Mexico isn’t paying for it, the wall won’t cover the border, and we’ll get around to funding it at some later time. Trump promised to bring back all the coal jobs that have disappeared over the decades. It turns out that in practice, he’s going to undo some environmental regulations, which will bring back approximately zero coal jobs; in fact, it’s a near-certainty that there will be even fewer coal miners at the end of Trump’s term than at the beginning.

Trump promised to ban Muslims from coming to the United States. In practice, first he scaled back the ban to cover refugees and migrants from a handful countries, then when that was blocked in court, he scaled it back a bit more, and now that has been blocked, too, leaving its fate uncertain. Trump promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with “something terrific.” In practice, we saw how that went.

All that’s not to say that Trump hasn’t already kept some of his promises, because he has. But generally speaking, the more extravagant and ambitious the promise was, the more likely it has been scaled back or dropped altogether.

There’s one more promise Trump made that we should keep our eye on. As the election approached, he said that if he became president, he would “make every dream you ever dreamed for your country come true.” Something tells me that’s one he’s not going to be able to keep.