And now we can add one more to the list. Trump took to the Oval Office on Monday morning to hail “maybe the largest trade deal ever made,” with Mexico — a deal that allowed him to “terminate” the North American Free Trade Agreement, as he’s longed to do. Except neither of these things are even close to being substantiated. And it’s patently obvious that Trump has yet again claimed a major diplomatic victory that is completely premature at best and completely fictional and fanciful at worst.
No, it may not be surprising anymore. But it is worth noting just how much the president is exaggerating/inventing in regard to something with such serious real-world consequences for U.S. workers.
The Weekly Standard’s Haley Byrd has a must-read piece on how even Republican senators are pooh-poohing Trump’s announcement. Trump’s “deal” is basically that the United States and Mexico have come to terms and are moving forward, with Canada welcome to try to join. The problem is that the actual rules and basic arithmetic make it very unlikely that NAFTA could so easily be reduced from a three-party agreement to a two-party one. Trump’s threat to move forward without Canada seems rather empty.
The White House is clearly rushing things. These agreements require giving Congress 90 days' notice, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is set to be replaced by leftist President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador in a little more than 90 days, on Dec. 1. That means Congress needs to be notified by Friday, which just happens to be the deadline the White House has set for Canada to get in on the action before Congress is officially informed.
And maybe that will happen! Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland is in Washington on Tuesday to talk about the whole thing. But Trump and U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer say they’re moving ahead regardless, which doesn’t appear possible.
Or, as Byrd puts it rather pointedly, “It is unclear why the office of the U.S. Trade Representative thinks this is an option":
In order to negotiate trade pacts quickly in accordance with Trade Promotion Authority, the White House has to notify Congress of its intentions in writing. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer did that in the spring of 2017 — but with respect to NAFTA specifically, explicitly stating that both Mexico and Canada would be involved. “I am pleased to notify the Congress that the President intends to initiate negotiations with Canada and Mexico regarding modernization of the North American Free Trade Agreement,” Lighthizer wrote in his letter.
This kicked off a process that allows the administration to move more quickly in obtaining congressional approval, known as “ fast track” negotiating authority, which speeds up to process by limiting the amount of debate time available and preventing amendments from being submitted to trade agreements, among other things.
But Lighthizer has not taken any of the steps required to proceed on a bilateral basis to negotiate an entirely new U.S.-Mexico trade agreement. CNBC’s Kayla Tausche notes that the administration would have to ask Congress to approve the two-party negotiations and would later have to notify lawmakers of its plans to seek a vote on that trade deal. “That process would take, at a minimum, 180 days,” Tausche writes.
Were Canada to decline to join a new trade deal to replace NAFTA, Trump would almost definitely need to receive congressional authorization for a new, bilateral trade deal — which would be a hard sell given that even Republican lawmakers are wary of Trump’s protectionist approach to trade.
But that’s not the path laid out Tuesday by Trump and the White House. They suggested this can be done via presidential authority even without Canada. Trump appears to be bluffing in hopes of getting Canada on board rather quickly, but it’s also abundantly clear that he’s bluffing.
Canada must know that, and if it understands its choice as being between joining the deal and keeping NAFTA — given that Trump probably can’t replace it with a bilateral deal — it may just decide it’s best to call Trump’s bluff and let him try that. At the very least, it would seem better to wait a little while and not negotiate with a knife at your throat.
All of it might shake out in the end. Canada could indeed join at some point, Trump’s antics notwithstanding. But the path laid out by Trump doesn’t appear to be a viable one, and like his previous, self-proclaimed diplomatic coups, it falls apart almost instantly upon further inspection.