President Trump and senior White House officials are working to salvage political support for a revised trade pact with Mexico and Canada, stunned by bipartisan blowback that appeared likely to scuttle a key initiative.
Several Democrats said Trump put on a charm offensive Tuesday during a White House meeting, soliciting their feedback on what he would need to do to win their support for an updated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
It was much different from the antagonistic approach he has taken with Democrats in recent weeks while they ramp up investigations into his finances and businesses. White House officials have said that Trump really wants the Canada-Mexico trade deal to be successful and that he knows he needs support from Democrats to achieve this.
“I think if you leave the White House today, the tone of the conversations were pretty good,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), who is locked in a separate battle with the White House over accessing Trump’s tax returns.
Trump’s new courtship of Democrats on trade came as he is simultaneously trying to prevent Republicans from bolting. A number of Republicans have objected to Trump’s hardball tactics in the trade talks and want him to start offering Canada and Mexico immediate concessions.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) told the White House this week that the trade agreement cannot pass the GOP-controlled Senate unless Trump first lifts steel and aluminum tariffs against Mexico and Canada. Trump has said he is reluctant to do this before both countries agree to import quotas, but patience among Republicans for this negotiating style has worn thin.
“Well, the administration feels that this is a great negotiating tool, and they feel that it’s a separate issue, but I don’t think it is,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). “I think we need to see action on the tariffs in order to get trade done.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who has also raised concerns and is meeting with White House officials about trade on Thursday, said that “something’s going to have to give, or we won’t have a successful implementation or vote on” the new deal.
Trump is relying on support from Democrats in both the House and the Senate to help him revise NAFTA, which was one of his top campaign promises. Trump had initially threatened to try to invalidate the existing trade agreement if lawmakers did not accept his new deal, but White House officials have not made that threat publicly in recent weeks.
“My hope is that we don’t see any stepping out of the current NAFTA before that happens. That would put only more pressure on the right politically, and that would be something that would be detrimental,” Scott said.
Trump has used a “take-it-or-leave-it” approach when negotiating with Congress and foreign leaders in the past, but he is now handling the Canada-Mexico trade talks differently. Democrats have said they will insist on strict enforcement of labor standards in exchange for their votes, and they want union leaders to be on board with any deal. Top union officials have so far refused to endorse the deal until changes are made.
Democrats have been careful, though, and have not flatly rejected the deal like they rallied to oppose many of the White House’s other tax and economic proposals. That’s in part because U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer has worked very closely with Democrats and union leaders throughout the negotiations to keep them updated on developments and seek their input. At the White House meeting on Tuesday, Democrats praised Lighthizer in front of the president.
But illustrating the tightrope White House officials are walking, Lighthizer wasn’t at the meeting. He was with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in China, trying to broker a separate trade deal.
White House officials believe the trade deal they are trying to strike with China will not need congressional approval, but the Canada-Mexico deal will because it revises an existing trade agreement.
White House officials have signaled they want the Canada-Mexico trade deal to be completed by the end of this year, before election-year politics overwhelm Washington in 2020.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who also met with Trump on Tuesday, would not rule out the possibility that the trade agreement might be passed by the end of the year.
It’s “too early to tell,” he said. “We need to know about enforcement, we need to know about other things.”
While Trump tries to mollify Democrats, his meeting Thursday with Scott and other Republicans is meant to quell an uprising on his right. Both sides are simultaneously making demands, and Trump appears to be listening to the feedback.
“So I think the president will have to come to the table with something that is a meaningful concession to concerns on both sides of the aisle and bicameral concerns,” Scott said.