WASHINGTON >> The Trump administration is considering a draft executive order to withdraw the U.S. from the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada — though administration officials caution it’s just one of a number of options currently being discussed by the president and his staff.
Senior White House officials have been discussing steps that can be taken to start the process of renegotiating or withdrawing from NAFTA before the end of President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office, according to a person familiar with the president’s thinking. Trump railed against the decades-old trade deal during his campaign, describing it as a “disaster.”
But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations, said a number of options remain on the table, and discussions are ongoing about the best way to proceed.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer declined to comment on the order, which was first reported by Politico.
“The president has made addressing the problems of NAFTA a priority throughout the campaign, and once the president makes a decision about how he wants to address that, we’ll let you know,” he said.
The administration appears to be divided over how and when to proceed, as they balance a newfound cautiousness with the desire to rack up accomplishments before Trump’s 100th day on the job.
Some are gunning for Trump to sign a draft order this week, while others are weighing the complications surrounding withdrawing from or renegotiating the deal without Congress fully onboard. The debate played out in the press today as some outlets quoted officials insisting the signing was imminent, while other officials dismissed the reports as “just a rumor.”
“My practice is to comment on things we’ve actually done or are doing as opposed to commenting on rumors,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told reporters at an unrelated White House briefing tonight.
Trump can withdraw from NAFTA — but he has to give six months’ notice. And it is unclear what would happen next. The law Congress passed to enact the trade pact might remain in place, forcing Trump to wrangle with lawmakers and raising questions about the president’s authority to raise tariffs on Mexican and Canadian imports.
And while an executive order could direct the United States Trade Representative or others to look into steps needed to renegotiate or withdraw, the same could be accomplished with a simple phone call, making an order largely symbolic.
The discussion comes days after the administration announced it would slap hefty tariffs on softwood lumber being imported from Canada. Trump has also been railing against changes in Canadian milk product pricing that he says are hurting the American dairy industry.
Trump told The Associated Press in an interview last week that he plans to either renegotiate or terminate NAFTA, which he and other critics blame for wiping out U.S. manufacturing jobs because it allowed companies to move factories to Mexico to take advantage of low-wage labor.
“I am very upset with NAFTA. I think NAFTA has been a catastrophic trade deal for the United States, trading agreement for the United States. It hurts us with Canada, and it hurts us with Mexico,” he said.
Another senior White House official declined to comment on “rumors” of specific actions. But that official said NAFTA has been a top priority for the president since day one and the administration has been working on addressing the issues since the president took office. That person also spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s thinking.
The Trump administration last month submitted a vague set of guidelines to Congress for renegotiating NAFTA, disappointing those who were expecting Trump to demand a major overhaul.
In an eight-page draft letter to Congress, acting U.S. Trade Representative Stephen Vaughn wrote that the administration intended to start talking with Mexico and Canada about making changes to the pact, which took effect in 1994.
The letter spelled out few details and stuck with broad principles. But it appeared to keep much of the existing agreement in place, including private tribunals that allow companies to challenge national laws on the grounds that they inhibit trade — a provision that critics say allows companies to get around environmental and labor laws.
Reports today of the possible move drew objections from some in Congress, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
“Withdrawing from #NAFTA would be a disaster for #Arizona jobs & economy,” he tweeted. “POTUS shouldn’t abandon this vital trade agreement.”