During his campaign, Trump had said that he would reopen negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement and direct the Treasury Department to declare that China is manipulating its currency on the first day of his administration. Neither item was on his to-do list in the recorded remarks he put online Monday.
Noting that curtailing international trade could cause economic chaos, many analysts have been skeptical about how committed the president-elect is to the populist and protectionist agenda that helped him defeat former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. The omission in this week's message leaves open the question of how exactly Trump intends to shift manufacturing from overseas into the United States -- a pledge he repeated often on the stump.
"They’re trying to back away from the wilder statements that he made during the campaign," said Marcus Noland, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Trump only said he would declare his intent to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Obama administration's trade deal. The demise of the accord was a forgone conclusion already, however. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Republican majority leader, said in August that the deal would not get a vote in Congress.
Withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership will not affect trade with China, which is not a party to the deal. China is the most important single source of imported goods and services for American consumers. Imports from China totaled $499 billion last year, about 18 percent of all U.S. imports.
The rapid increase in trade with China, which began around 2000, has caused profound changes in the U.S. economy, reducing prices for consumers and opening up new markets for U.S. exporters, but also limiting the need for labor in domestic manufacturing. A group of economists has estimated that competition with Chinese imports put between 2 million and 2.4 million Americans out of work between 1999 and 2011.
Trump had previously said he would try to reverse this trend by declaring that China was manipulating its currency, the renminbi. That action would initiate formal discussions of the two countries' commercial relationship. In the past, Trump has said that he would impose a prohibitive tariff of 45 percent on Chinese imports, but Wilbur Ross, one of Trump's senior advisers, retreated from that proposal in an interview after the election.
Most experts agree that while China has in the past put U.S. firms and workers at a disadvantage by maintaining an artificially cheap price for the renminbi, making Chinese products comparatively less expensive. China has since shifted away from this practice, however, and it is now unclear whether Trump will deliver on his promise in any case.
"Donald Trump can stand up and say, 'I think China’s manipulating its currency,' and that doesn’t mean anything," Noland said. "Under the law, China is not a currency manipulator."
Imports from Mexico amounted to another $325 billion last year. During his campaign, Trump had said that he would demand new negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement, or that he would use his executive authority as president to withdraw the United States from the deal.
Noland predicted that Trump would try to win concessions from Mexico, possibly using the threat of withdrawal to improve his leverage in negotiations. Mexico is more dependent on its economic relationship with the United States than China, giving Mexican diplomats a reason to bargain.
"He would go relatively cautiously in the first 100 days, despite his legal ability to do quite a bit," Noland said. "He would focus on Mexico rather than China, because frankly speaking, Mexico is easier to bully."
Trump, however, said nothing about Mexico in his taped remarks Monday. "There's still a lot of uncertainty about how this is going to play out," Noland said.