President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe split Wednesday evening on their goals for a new round of trade talks between the longtime allies, exposing a rift in the alliance.
Abe announced the new U.S.-Japanese trade talks during a joint press conference after the first full day of a mini-summit at Trump’s resort in Florida. But Abe broke with Trump by telling reporters he wants those talks to expand the two countries levels of trade and investment in each other’s markets, and the re-entry of the United States in a trade alliance that includes 11 Asian-Pacific countries.
No going back?
“I don’t want to go back into TPP,” Trump said, adding a caveat: If the TPP countries collectively offered the United States different terms than were negotiated by former President Barack Obama’s administration, “I would do it.”
When pressed the Japanese leader would not commit to even the pursuit of a pact that would be limited to Washington and Tokyo, saying only that his government is aware of the Trump administration’s preference for an U.S.-Japan deal. Moments later, the U.S. president pointedly reiterated his preference for “a one-on-one deal with Japan.”
Trump did signal his interest in eventually lifting or relieving steel and aluminum tariffs on Japanese goods. To Abe’s chagrin earlier this year, when the U.S. administration imposed those with a list of exemptions for a handful of allies, his country was excluded.
The push by the American leader for an U.S.-Japan pact was met warmly by some Republican lawmakers.
Charles E. Grassley of Iowa has been among a group of GOP senators who for months has been urging the president to consider re-entry into the Asian trade coalition. But on Wednesday, he told reporters Trump’s approach might work out.
“If he can get a bilateral negotiation with Japan, then I think that is just better, in fact,” he said, then cautioning Trump to quickly determine if a deal between the two economic powers is possible and be ready to audible if not possible.
“But if he can’t, we need to start talking to these countries because this is a big factor in two respects,” Grassley said. “One, America exports to those countries, particularly Japan. And second, it’s necessary for foreign relations reasons.” Another reason: Either a deal with Japan or joining TPP is necessary, he said, “so China does not play a leading role there.”
Under questioning earlier in the day from Rep. David Young, R-Iowa, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he couldn’t provide an update on the president’s stance on negotiating a new deal in place of TPP. But he did say he has encouraged the president to “find a better deal.”
“He’s meeting with Mr. [Shinzō] Abe in Mar-A-Lago and hopefully that will be part of the discussion there,” Perdue said. “It would be a great unification against China in world trade.”
But some farm-state lawmakers who have been pushing Trump to rejoin the 11-county alliance maintained their stance.
“The reasons the president said” last week when Trump told a group of them he might get back in TPP “are still there,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. “Those reasons are, it helps our farmers. It gives them assurances. … It will calm the waters in farm country. And, if the effort, to get China to behave differently, this TPP is a way we can encourage that to happen.”
Asked if the frequent stance-changing by Trump – who late Tuesday night fired off a tweet reversing his reversal on TPP — is unsettling to him, Moran replied: “I’m always for certainty.”
While Japan and South Korea would like us to go back into TPP, 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. Look how bad WTO is to U.S.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 18, 2018
“Farmers need certainty. It’s planting time,” he said. “You’re trying to get access to credit. And if the markets that are going to be accessible diminish, that hurts. … But there is a belief in farm country that the president might know what he’s doing in this regard.”
But the duo’s press conference was not all about trade and tariffs.
Trump vowed to walk out of his potential meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un if he determines the talks are going nowhere.
And when asked directly, Trump would not say he will not fire Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller or Deputy Attorney General over the Justice Department’s Russia probe.
“They’ve been saying I’m going to get rid of them for the last three months, four months, five months,” he said. “And they’re still here.”
Kellie Mejdrich and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.