President Donald Trump said he has told the leaders of Mexico and Canada that he will not pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement at this time, but could still withdraw if he concludes a renegotiated pact is not “a fair deal for all.”
Trump tweeted early Thursday that he has agreed to remain a partner in the much-discussed trade agreement in calls he received from Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The White House released a statement late Wednesday saying only that Trump had assured the two leaders in phone conversations that the U.S. would not withdraw from NAFTA at this time.

His bluff to withdraw from NAFTA lasted less than 24 hours. (“The statement came hours after administration officials said Trump was considering a draft executive order to withdraw the U.S. from the deal — though administration officials cautioned it was just one of a number of options being discussed by the president and his staff.”)

Talk of pulling out of NAFTA rattled Mexican and Canadian stock and currency markets and provoked a swift rebuke from Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), one of the few Republicans who has never backed Trump nor disguised his objections to the president’s deportment or policies. “Scrapping NAFTA would be a disastrously bad idea. It would hurt American families at the check-out, and it would cripple American producers in the field and the office,” he said in a statement. “Yes, there are places where our agreements could be modernized but here’s the bottom line: trade lowers prices for American consumers and it expands markets for American goods. Risking trade wars is reckless, not wise.” It was a rare, sane declaration at a time when both parties have cravenly catered to popular misconceptions and ignorance about trade. (The president seems deathly afraid of the trade deficit, without any sign he knows what that means or that it is entirely unrelated to economic growth.)

The president may be under the misconception that stunts such as these improve his standing in the world or give him leverage in negotiations. To the contrary, chest-thumping followed by swift retreat trains adversaries and partners to disregard his threats. As many Americans have, other countries come to regard him as a feckless blowhard. Down the road, in the midst of a real crisis when we try to stare down an adversary or get allies to put themselves at risk, Trump may encounter eye-rolling and very little confidence.

Meanwhile, Trump nibbles away at American trade deals. Earlier this week, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced new 20 percent tariffs on softwood lumber imported from Canada. It was left to trade groups and conservative pundits and scholars to excoriate the move. The National Association of Home Builders slammed the move. (“NAHB is deeply disappointed in this short-sighted action by the U.S. Department of Commerce that will ultimately do nothing to resolve issues causing the U.S.-Canadian lumber trade dispute but will negatively harm American consumers and housing affordability.”) Mark J. Perry of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out that “a) Canadian lumber doesn’t pay the tariff, b) Canadian lumber companies won’t pay the tariff, and c) American lumber-buying companies (mostly homebuilders) will pay the tariff, which will be passed along to home buyers in the form of higher new home prices. Therefore, it’s more accurate to report that Trump has just slapped stiff 20% tariffs (lumber taxes) on the American people, not Canada.” (Emphasis and italics in the original.)

When President Barack Obama dabbled in protectionism, conservatives were not shy about speaking out. (“Despite his pro-forma demurrals, [the president’s] actions and nonactions are telling the world that the U.S. is abandoning the global leadership on trade that Presidents of both parties have worked to maintain since the 1930s,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote in 2009. However, in supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership and finishing trade deals with Colombia and South Korea, Obama was much sounder on trade policy than his successor.

Now some Republican politicians other than Sasse surely can take a break from intellectually dishonest cheerleading for an anti-free-market, big-government president to rebuke his dumb, counterproductive trade moves, right? Well, perhaps not.