The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Some people say it would be the greatest flip-flop ever

President Trump. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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Republicans and Democrats who opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal forfeited a huge economic and geopolitical victory for the United States and our democratic allies in Asia. The deal would have cemented geopolitical ties with key countries, helped set rules of the road for international trade, opened up markets for U.S. businesses and given the United States leverage against China, which was excluded from the deal. No one played the anti-TPP card more frequently — as candidate or elected official — than Donald Trump.

It is fair to surmise that Trump had no idea what was in the TPP and could not identify anything specifically wrong with it. He only believed that because it was President Barack Obama’s deal it must be bad. Who can forget this debate when Trump went on his nonsensical anti-TPP rant, only to be embarrassed when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) pointed out China was not part of the TPP:

In fairness, Hillary Clinton also flip-flopped on the TPP, which was negotiated in part on her watch as secretary of state. Both parties have demagogued trade to the detriment of American consumers and workers alike.

The decision not to proceed with the TPP opened up new opportunities for China to spread influence and set economic ground rules, shook allies’ confidence in the United States and — maybe worst of all — gave China a gift. China (not to mention Russia) opposed the TPP for the simple reason that it gave the UNited States and its coalition of democratic allies leverage in the Asia-Pacific.

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Now that Trump has gone down the protectionism route, wouldn’t you know he lacks allied support (Japan still hasn’t been exempted from steel tariffs) and faces domestic and international blowback. How can he change the equation on trade? TPP! No, really. The Post reports:

President Trump ordered top administration officials Thursday to look at rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the sprawling trade pact he rejected three days after taking office. . . .
Trump gave the new orders to U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow during a White House meeting with lawmakers and governors, according to several GOP senators in attendance.
Trump then told Lighthizer and Kudlow to “take a look at getting us back into that agreement, on our terms, of course,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “He was very, I would say, bullish about that.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) also witnessed and applauded Trump’s surprise move.

Trump’s about-face was as stunning as it was inexplicable, Trump tried to downplay his flip-flop in a tweet Thursday night. “Would only join TPP if the deal were substantially better than the deal offered to Pres. Obama. We already have BILATERAL deals with six of the eleven nations in TPP, and are working to make a deal with the biggest of those nations, Japan, who has hit us hard on trade for years!” One sure does get the sense that Trump’s opposition to the TPP would never had been so fierce if the Obama administration hadn’t been the one to do the deal.

That said, the president’s laughable inconsistency is no reason not to make every effort to revive the TPP, which would be just the thing to put pressure on China to make concessions on U.S. intellectual property, the most important and legitimate part of our beef with Beijing’s trade practices. Whoever got Trump to rethink the TPP did the country a great service. If Larry Kudlow and/or secretary of state-nominee Mike Pompeo could patch things up, it would be a true achievement.

And if Trump could be swayed to reverse course on a deal he actually knew very little about but was part of his “If Obama did it, it’s bad” mind-set, maybe the same could hold true of the Iran deal. If the Europeans are smart, they’ll work with U.S. negotiators to convince Trump that new agreements have transformed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action from the worst deal in history to a diplomatic masterstroke. Bears no resemblance to Obama’s JCPOA! Best deal ever! It’s the art of the deal at work! Whatever it takes to avoid an international debacle.