President Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping (Saul Loeb/Pool/AP)

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told senators Tuesday that he’s encouraging President Trump to consider rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 11-nation trade deal the president pulled out of days after taking office.

Perdue’s comment is the latest mixed signal from the Trump administration over the TPP, which Trump recently told senators he’s open to rejoining, only to subsequently suggest over Twitter that he’s not.

The agriculture secretary’s statement came at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing in response to a question from Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.).

“When we pull out of the TPP, China increases influence in the region,” Daines said. “Secretary Perdue, notwithstanding other aspects of TPP, would joining that agreement, do you believe, benefit U.S. agriculture?”

Perdue responded: “I do. I think, again, it forms a united front with our allies in an effort of tariff reduction that excludes China, to our benefit and not to their benefit. And I concur with you there. I’ve encouraged the president in that regard to consider the TPP again.”

Perdue went on to allude to a White House meeting this month where Trump ordered top administration officials to look at rejoining the sprawling trade pact, which was originally negotiated by the Obama administration to serve as a counterweight to China in the region.

“I would welcome us looking at rejoining the TPP,” Perdue added. “Again, I think the president’s negotiating style could possibly get a, even a better agreement this time around.”

Perdue did not remark upon the tweet Trump sent five days after giving orders to look at rejoining the TPP, where the president threw cold water on the idea. The president wrote then over Twitter: “I don’t like the deal for the United States. Too many contingencies and no way to get out if it doesn’t work. Bilateral deals are far more efficient, profitable and better for OUR workers.”

Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council and one of the officials Trump had tasked with looking at rejoining the TPP, also downplayed chances for doing so. Still, Perdue’s comments revealed ongoing splits within the Trump administration over trade, the issue that has divided Trump from Republican lawmakers. GOP senators have repeatedly denounced the president’s protectionist policies, while appearing powerless to do anything about them.

The Obama administration had signed the TPP with 11 other countries, including Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and Australia, to lower tariffs and counter China’s influence in the Pacific. An embrace of the TPP would give Trump more leverage in his escalating trade feud with Beijing. It also would give U.S. farms, retailers and other businesses better access to foreign markets if China makes good on its recent threats of new tariffs on U.S. goods.

The agriculture sector has been most fearful of retaliation from China in response to tariffs on aluminum, steel and other products that Trump has announced. Several Republican senators at Tuesday’s hearing voiced anew their frustration over the issue and described the anxiety that has swept their farm communities because of the uncertainty that surrounds U.S. trade policy. That includes ongoing efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been a boon to farm country.

“I’m hopeful that we will see a successful NAFTA conclusion here shortly,” Perdue told senators, as he sought to assure them that the president understands their concerns over the impact his trade moves are having on agriculture, including whipsawing commodity prices as concerns over retaliation roil markets. 

“I think you could even say that in some cases we’re using farmers, ranchers, growers, as a pawn with regards to try to get there from here on a better trade agreement,” Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) told Perdue. “That’s pretty strong words. I don’t mean that in an accusatory fashion; that’s just the way it is.”

The administration has been considering using a Depression-era program called the Commodity Credit Corporation to help bail out farmers hurt by the trade dispute with China. But Roberts and other Republican senators have argued against the approach, saying that farmers want access to markets, not a government check.

Questioned by senators, Perdue declined to specify what steps the administration planned to take via the Commodity Credit Corporation or otherwise to help farmers, but defended the need to look at such options.

“We’ve discussed obviously your proposal that we want trade and we want open new markets, rather than aid,” Perdue told Roberts. “But I think it’s my responsibility, incumbent on me, also to look at any kind of mitigation strategies from a USDA perspective in case those negotiations don’t take effect. So we’re encouraging the president now that he’s gotten China’s attention to get to the table and let’s resolve this the way we’ve resolved any trade dispute.”