President Trump on Thursday morning appeared to be trying to take credit for a “win” of sorts on the question of the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But after a storm of White House leaks, press releases and presidential tweets, it’s not clear than anything has actually changed.
On Wednesday afternoon, White House officials told reporters that the president was close to signing an executive order that would begin the process of withdrawing the United States from NAFTA, a treaty that Trump repeatedly attacked on the campaign trail as “the worst trade deal ever.”
However, by later in the evening, the threat to leave the agreement immediately was lifted. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena-Nieto each called the president for what the White House characterized as “pleasant and productive” discussions.
Afterward, in a statement, Trump said, ““It is my privilege to bring NAFTA up to date through renegotiation. I believe that the end result will make all three countries stronger and better.”
“I received calls from the President of Mexico and the Prime Minister of Canada asking to renegotiate NAFTA rather than terminate. I agreed...subject to the fact that if we do not reach a fair deal for all, we will then terminate NAFTA. Relationships are good-deal very possible!”
The implication seemed to be that his withdrawal threat had brought Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Mexico’s Enrique Pena-Nieto running to the table for trade talks.
So, was this an example of shrewd deal-making? Or of Trump creating unnecessary drama by negotiating with himself in public before backing down?
Consider this: In a visit to Houston in March, Trudeau pointed out that NAFTA has been "tweaked and improved over a dozen times over the past 20 years” and suggested that the Canadian government was open to negotiations.
“One of the things we always emphasize, and we always look for as a country, is not a zero sum game in terms of negotiation,” he said. “We believe that proper collaboration and respectful dialogue actually leads to significant benefits for both sides.”
Similarly, Mexico has already said that it would talk to the U.S. about changes to NAFTA, though it promised to play hardball when it does.
“We also know that Mexico is an important country for the U.S. on security issues, on combating organized crime, preventing terror and, of course, cooperating on immigration," Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said in testimony before the Mexican senate in March. “All matters are on the table simultaneously.”
By late March, in fact, Mexican officials were privately urging the Trump administration to hurry up and start talks.
So at the end of the day Wednesday, Trump’s position remained the same as it has been since the campaign -- renegotiate NAFTA or pull out. And the positions of Canada and Mexico remained the same also -- cautious willingness to talk about changes to the treaty.
Does it count as shrewd negotiating if, after making a public threat and then quickly withdrawing it, you wind up with what you already had in the first place? Trump must have left that chapter out of The Art of the Deal.