President Trump directed U.S. trade officials Thursday to explore rejoining the Obama administration’s free-trade deal with Pacific Rim nations, an agreement that Mr. Trump withdrew from last year, as he sought to ease farmers’ concerns about a tariff feud with China.
The decision came in a White House meeting with farm-state lawmakers and governors, who said Mr. Trump “deputized” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow and U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer to investigate the U.S. rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“That certainly be good news all throughout farm country,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
While Mr. Trump’s agricultural base praised the move, other conservatives and liberals joined in a chorus of criticism reminding the president he campaigned forcefully against the U.S. joining the trade deal.
Rep. Tim Ryan, Ohio Democrat, called the president’s move “one of his biggest flip-flops yet.”
Rick Manning, president of the conservative Americans for Limited Government, said reconsideration of the TPP withdrawal “would be a disaster both for our nation and for President Trump, who won the election promising to get out of this deal.”
The 11-nation TPP, which includes Japan, Mexico, Vietnam, Australia and others, would open more markets overseas to U.S. farmers. Those countries signed the pact last month.
“I’m sure there are lots of particulars that they’d want to negotiate, but the president multiple times reaffirmed in general to all of us and looked right at Larry Kudlow and said, ‘Larry, go get it done,’” said Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican.
As a candidate, Mr. Trump blasted the Obama-era TPP as the sort of multination trade deal that causes job losses and factory closures in the U.S. He pulled the U.S. out of the deal in 2017 as a defining action in his “America first” agenda, after years of negotiations by the Obama administration.
In January, however, Mr. Trump said he would be open to revisiting TPP if the U.S. could negotiate better terms.
“I would do TPP if we were able to make a substantially better deal,” Mr. Trump said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “The deal was terrible, the way it was structured was terrible. If we did a substantially better deal, I would be open to TPP.”
He spoke similarly Thursday night, taking to Twitter to say the U.S. “would only join TPP if the deal were substantially better than the deal offered to Pres. Obama. We already have BILATERAL deals with six of the eleven nations in TPP, and are working to make a deal with the biggest of those nations, Japan, who has hit us hard on trade for years!”
During a February news conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Mr. Trump again raised the possibility of rejoining TPP if the U.S. could obtain better terms.
The administration has been floating a multi-billion-dollar proposal to provide temporary relief to farmers who would be hurt by Chinese tariffs in a series of escalating trade threats by Beijing and Washington. China has vowed to impose tariffs on U.S. soybeans, pork, apples and other products.
But lawmakers emerging from the White House meeting said they are more interested in opening new markets for trade than obtaining temporary subsidies. A congressional staffer familiar with the discussion said, “When it came up, senators and governors expressed no appetite for subsidies.”
“We prefer trade as opposed to aid,” Mr. Roberts said.
Mr. Sasse, who has criticized proposed subsidies, said Mr. Trump repeated several times that the TPP trade deal “might be easier for us to join now” because the other 11 countries have already agreed on the terms.
“The farmers and ranchers of America, they don’t want welfare payments,” Mr. Sasse said. “They want to feed the world.”
Lawmakers said the subject of emergency agriculture subsidies was broached only briefly during Thursday’s hour-long meeting.
“We need markets,” said Sen. John Hoeven, North Dakota Republican. “We need free trade, we need fair trade.”
He said the discussion included proposals to talk to TPP nations to decide “how do we do more trade with each other to put more pressure on China to play fair?”
China is not a party to the TPP agreement. The Obama administration envisioned the deal as a counterweight to China’s economic influence in the Pacific region.
Mr. Sasse said Mr. Trump’s current course of “tariffs first, U.S.-alone action” won’t solve America’s trade problems.
“China cheats in lots and lots of ways,” Mr. Sasse said. “The single best way we can counter that is by leading all the rule-of-law nations in the Pacific who would rather be aligned with the U.S. than be aligned with China.”
While free-trade Republicans praised Mr. Trump’s possible reversal on TPP, liberals blasted the president’s move.
“Rejoining the TPP would be a betrayal of American workers, and a step in the wrong direction,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent. “Joining the TPP would not bring back one American job that has been outsourced to China. Instead, it would force more American workers to compete with desperate workers in Vietnam who make 65 cents an hour and migrant computer workers in Malaysia who are working as modern day slaves.”
Democrat Hillary Clinton praised the TPP negotiations while she served as Mr. Obama’s secretary of state, but as the party’s presidential nominee she came out against the pact.
“I urge the President not to break his campaign promise and rejoin the TPP,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat. “The era of trade agreements drafted by and for corporate interests while exploiting workers must end.”
White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said Mr. Trump, in withdrawing from the trade agreement last year, “kept his promise to end the TPP deal negotiated by the Obama Administration because it was unfair to American workers and farmers.”
“The president has consistently said he would be open to a substantially better deal, including in his speech in Davos earlier this year,” she said. “To that end, he has asked Amb. Lighthizer and Director Kudlow to take another look at whether or not a better deal could be negotiated.” Mr. Manning said reopening U.S. involvement of the TPP would be a betrayal by Mr. Trump.
“This sovereignty-killing globalist dream pact embodies everything that the President has opposed throughout his political life, and there is simply no margin to reenter it,” he said.