- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 17, 2020

President Trump’s trade negotiator said Wednesday the U.S. will enforce major deals the administration struck with North American neighbors and China before the coronavirus pandemic struck, as lawmakers point to the pacts as catalysts for the recovery.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said the administration will closely monitor Mexico’s labor standards when the U.S.-Mexico-Canada goes into force on July 1. Enforcement is a key priority for House Democrats who demanded improvements to the deal so that shoddy labor practices to the south did not undercut American workers.

“We will take action early and often when there are problems,” Mr. Lighthizer told House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump says he “lost a little flavor for” the phase-one deal he struck with China, as he blames Beijing for letting the pandemic get out of control instead of limiting it to its source in Wuhan, China. But he hasn’t walked away from the deal.

Mr. Lighthizer said the press treats the deal as little more than a “soybean sales contract,” but it reaches far into currency and tech issues, plus the transfer of intellectual property. He said he will stick to his lane as the U.S. tries to navigate China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous financial hub for China.

“I’m focusing on the trade relationship. I think we have what is an excellent agreement,” Mr. Lighthizer said.

Congress approved the USMCA and Mr. Trump signed the initial-stage deal with China on back-to-back days in January, giving the administration a double-barreled victory in a campaign year.

But then the pandemic hit, upending the economy and making the deals a distant memory.

“In some ways, these problems make talk of international trade seem less important. But in other ways perhaps rebuilding our economy, helping to create good-paying jobs for all Americans, securing fairness for our businesses and bringing back manufacturing can be part of the solution to bring us all together as one great country again,” Mr. Lighthizer testified. “We have been isolated and quarantined so long that I fear we might forget the great achievement of the last few months.”

The U.S. is engaged in trade negotiations with the U.K., which left the European Union, and will start talks with Kenya.

Mr. Lighthizer said it will be difficult to negotiate in earnest because of the pandemic, which forces people to interact from afar.

“I’m not one that believes that are you ever going to negotiate a major trade deal over video or over the telephone. I just don’t think it’s possible,” he said.
He also said he wants to get “something” worked out with the European Union but they’ve made little headway.

Rep. Kevin Brady, Texas Republican, said he expects the U.S. to reap the rewards of deals it’s negotiated so far.

“Especially in the face of COVID-19, implementation and enforcement of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement will bring good jobs back to America and increase paychecks for our workers,” Mr. Brady said.

“I know you won’t hesitate to use the powerful enforcement mechanism if China fails to live up to its obligations,” he added. “Republicans agree with the president: we will insist that Americans receive our expected benefits and that China does not backtrack.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered the first U.S. coronavirus case in a man who returned to Washington state from China on Jan. 15 — the same day Mr. Trump and Chinese officials signed the phase-one deal at the White House. The infection was detected and reported about a week later.

Since then, 116,000 Americans have died and nearly every country around the globe has seen infections, scrambling global economies.

Chinese officials have said publicly they plan to keep up purchases of farm goods in the face of COVID-19 upheaval, Mr. Lighthizer said.

“I expect them to live up to the agreement,” he said. “They have indicated they will.”

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