In what would be another dramatic reversal, President Donald Trump told farm-state lawmakers Thursday he might sign the United States up for the Trans-Pacific Partnership after all.
Just by floating the idea, the Republican president drew the ire of conservatives on social media as he opened the door to joining a trade pact with 11 other Pacific Rim countries that he once dubbed “a continuing rape of our country.”
That comment came in 2016 when Trump was still a candidate for president. After he took office, he wasted little time going after the Obama-era trade deal, saying during his third day in office as he signed an order withdrawing the country from the deal: “Great thing for the American worker, what we just did.”
Fifteen months later, he has further stirred the trade hornets’ nest. His administration slapped steel and aluminum import tariffs on all other countries — with a handful of exceptions — and is on the brink of an all-out trade war with China. Now, suddenly, the president who has railed against trade pacts that feature the U.S. and multiple partners is considering joining the TPP, showing again his willingness to change his mind, even when doing so would betray his core beliefs and political base.
Trump remarks came during a White House meeting Thursday with farm-state lawmakers who were voicing their concerns over his trade tiff with Beijing. The president said he has instructed chief economic adviser Lawrence Kudlow and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to take another look at reviving the TPP, according to Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas.
The president told lawmakers he has concluded it might be easier for the country to join the trade deal after the other 11 members have finished their negotiations, with the U.S. then joining as the 12th member.
Roberts and fellow-GOP Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, an occasional Trump critic, applauded the president’s willingness to reconsider his order to remove America from the TPP.
“That is certainly good news,” Roberts told reporters outside the West Wing.
Sasse was also upbeat but cautioned that Trump often “likes to blue-sky a lot” in such meetings. He said the president looked at Kudlow and said, “Go, get it done.”
“Lots of good things from this meeting,” Sasse said. “The president heard unified voices that we need more trade, not less.”
Roberts and Sasse said they poured cold water on the president’s idea that if tariff tensions with China escalate, he will provide federal aid to U.S. farmers.
“The farmers and ranchers, they don’t want welfare payments — they want to feed the world,” Sasse said. “They want a reduction in both tariff and non-tariff barriers.”
The lawmakers also told the president that joining TPP would allow the United States to counter China’s trade “cheating” by “leading” countries that would rather be aligned with Washington than Beijing. “The real strategy we need is to lead all of those rule-of-law nations in the Pacific,” Sasse said. “A U.S.-alone action … that’s not going to solve the real problems that we have.”
Another lawmaker at the meeting, Nebraska GOP Sen. Deb Fischer, said the farm-state members were excited by the president’s TPP talk because of a chance “to see those trade opportunities reaffirmed and grow.”
Trump met with the lawmakers in between other meetings over his expected response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria, Sasse said. The president seemed to slow the timeline for any U.S. strikes on the country after signaling earlier this week that an attack was imminent.
Watch: Lawmakers Press Pompeo On Syria Response Without Congressional Approval
Trump and his national security team will have “a number of meetings” on a potential response to the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria, the president said earlier Thursday.
“We have to make some further decisions,” Trump told reporters. “And they’ll be made fairly soon.”
The president earlier this week said he would make a decision by Wednesday, but that self-imposed deadline came and went with no U.S. action or final decision by the commander in chief. “We’ll see what happens, folks,” he said, using one of his preferred phrases while a decision is pending.