Trump in the Oval Office.
By Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
In the midst of a political firestorm over his response to John McCain’s death, Donald Trump attempted to get Americans to pay attention to something else: the wonderful, great trade deal—or rather, “understanding”—he recently struck with his former adversaries in Mexico. In terms of sheer optics, the announcement wasn’t particularly smooth: after inviting members of the press to join him in the Oval Office, Trump struggled to get Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on speakerphone, staring awkwardly out at reporters as he fiddled with the buttons on his desk. “It’s a big thing. A lot of people waiting,” he groused, before waving an aide over to assist. After finally connecting with Nieto, Trump announced that he and Mexico had reached a bilateral deal that would apparently cut out Canada, achieving Trump’s long-promised goal to disassemble the North American Free Trade Agreement. Or, he at least gave the impression that he had done so.
“They used to call it NAFTA,” Trump said, though the new, preliminary agreement does nothing to change companies’ ability to operate in Canada. NAFTA, the president explained, had a “bad connotation.” Instead, he said the deal would be called the “U.S.-Mexico Trade Agreement.”
The Canadians “have tariffs of almost 300 percent on some of our dairy products, and we can’t have that. We’re not going to stand for that,” he continued, suggesting that he would “tariff [Canada’s] cars coming in” in retribution. “It’s a tremendous amount of money and it’s a very simple negotiation. It could end in one day and we take in a lot of money the following day. But I think we’ll give them a chance to probably have a separate deal. We can have a separate deal or we can put it into this deal.”
Of course, Trump’s understanding of the “understanding”—as well as his blustery, nebulous threat against Canada—was about as artful as his attempt to stage a dramatic conference call. Nieto repeatedly insisted, both on Twitter and to Trump himself, that any renegotiation of NAFTA, regardless of its name, must be a three-party deal. Indeed, lawmakers told The New York Times that Trump’s willingness to ditch Canada “may not be legally permissible, let alone smart.” White House official Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s trade representative, offered a somewhat different view, telling reporters that “ideally, Canada will be in it,” and if not, “we will notify that we have a bilateral agreement that Canada is welcome to join.” Even that seems to misstate reality, however. As the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale points out, Canada has already been involved in negotiations all along:
It’s an open question whether Trump can actually terminate NAFTA anyway—at least not without a bruising political and legal fight. He could try, Cato Institute scholar Simon Lester told the Star, since the rules governing the procedures are so vague. But Congress would be unlikely to accede to a deal that excludes Canada. “More likely,” he said, “the administration is not really expecting a U.S.-Mexico bilateral, and this is just to put pressure on Canada, who I suspect will see through this strategy.”