Trump soon made clear through Twitter and his top aides that he had little interest in reengaging in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact despite what he told the lawmakers.
The Republican senators say the episode has left them annoyed but resigned to the difficult reality that Trump may not be a reliable partner on a politically fraught issue ahead of the midterm elections. They have been making their concerns clear to top administration officials, including to Vice President Pence at a private lunch this week.
“No. Did he do that?” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said sarcastically in response to a question about Trump’s recent reversal on the TPP. “I thought we had him lassoed pretty tight on that.”
Other senators who attended last week’s meeting expressed frustration at the conflicting signals from the president.
“The question you always have coming out of a meeting over there is, is the same position going to be true tomorrow?” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said.
Trump’s decision to engage in a potential trade war with China has raised deep concerns among U.S. farmers whose crops and goods are being targeted by the Chinese government in retaliation for the president’s proposal to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Republicans in the House and Senate — who want to campaign on their tax cuts — are likewise concerned that their electoral prospects this fall are being damaged by Trump’s trade policies in the agricultural regions of the country they are depending on to vote for the GOP.
“I hope the president is listening to members of Congress,” Thune said. “Because at least in farm country right now, this whole tariff issue is pushing all the other good economic news off to the back page.”
But so far, congressional Republicans have shown little interest in confronting the president, instead hoping their cajoling of Trump and his top aides will secure the policy changes they are seeking.
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) said senators are discussing potential moves to pressure the White House, such as blocking key nominees or using the upcoming renewal of trade promotion authority, which gives Trump “fast-track” powers on finalizing trade deals.
But he added that how willing Republicans would be to deploy those tactics will “depend on what the administration is doing.”
Inside a lunch with Pence earlier this week on Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans relayed their worry that the chaos ensuing from Trump’s global tariffs would drown out the impact of the new tax law, the GOP’s central midterm campaign message this year, attendees said.
Pence pledged to take those concerns to Trump, according to senators who described the private meeting on the condition of anonymity. The vice president also promised positive news on the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations soon.
Trump said this week that his preference is for bilateral trade deals that he says deliver far more benefits for U.S. workers than sprawling, multinational pacts. He stressed that point Wednesday night in a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“I don’t want to go back into TPP, but if they offered us a deal that I can’t refuse, on behalf of the United States, I would do it,” Trump said. “But I like bilateral. I think it’s better for our country. I think it’s better for our workers. And I much would prefer a bilateral deal, a deal directly with Japan.”
During his meeting with the senators, Trump instructed National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer to look at ways to help farmers, including reentering the sprawling TPP — a reversal from the president’s previous position. He campaigned against the TPP as a presidential candidate and signed an executive order withdrawing from the pact just three days after being sworn in as president.
The order to Kudlow and Lighthizer, senators in attendance said, came only after Republicans gathered inside the Cabinet Room at the White House argued to Trump that the best economic tactic to combat China’s rising influence was to reengage with the surrounding countries that remained in the Pacific Rim trade deal.
“We need to continue to have a discussion about the right strategy going forward here,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who made that case to Trump in the tariffs meeting last week. Then Daines praised Trump for his willingness to reengage in the Pacific trade deal, but said Wednesday he wasn’t surprised at the backtracking.
After the meeting, Daines forwarded a letter to Kudlow signed by the senator and two dozen other Republicans in February that urged the administration to take a second look at the TPP, stressing to Trump’s newly minted economic adviser that there remains support in the Senate for the deal.
“We need to look at a broader strategy that combines bilateral where it makes sense and complemented by multilateral agreements that could actually help us get better bilateral agreements, for example, with China,” Daines said. “You can’t make every bilateral agreement the highest priority.”
Since Trump’s meeting with senators, Kudlow has significantly downplayed the prospects of the United States rejoining the other TPP nations, which include Japan, whose prime minister met with Trump this week for a summit at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
The economic adviser emphasized that the United States is in the “pre-preliminary stages” of any discussion about the TPP, which the 11 remaining participating nations are moving ahead on after Trump announced the United States’ exit.
“We’ll see how that goes,” Kudlow said. “It will come up in this summit, no question about it. But for the American side, at the moment, it’s more of a thought than a policy, that’s for sure.”
The administration’s seesawing on policies is far from new, and lawmakers have become used to confusing and contradictory messages from Trump on top issues such as guns and immigration.
But trade has been the most significant dividing line between congressional Republicans who generally favor free trade and a president who has embraced protectionist positions. The issue has constantly consumed Senate GOP meetings on Capitol Hill, and Trump has repeatedly summoned key Republicans to the White House to air out their concerns.
“Farmers need certainty. It’s planting time,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), another farm-state Republican who has criticized Trump’s tariffs and attended last week’s meeting. “The uncertainty of what markets are going to be available to American agriculture diminishes that certainty. I wish it was different than it is.”
He added: “One never knows with this president what’s negotiating tactics and what’s not.”