Lawmakers and business and labor groups reacted cautiously to President Trump's proposed agenda for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. The agenda was broad enough and vague enough that groups on all sides of the issue remain hopeful that the president, a long-time critic of NAFTA, can be swayed their way.
"The objectives they outlined aren't bad. This devil is in the details," said a staffer for a Democratic lawmaker who requested anonymity. It is the one area where some people who are ordinarily Trump critics are inclined to cut him some slack — for now, anyway. "Considering that this is the first president of either party willing to renegotiate NAFTA, we recognize that things aren't going to be too easy."
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer released the administration's proposed agenda on Monday, one month ahead of the renegotiations with Canada and Mexico, the two other signatories to the trade deal. The administration was obligated to release the outline under "fast track" Trade Promotion Authority rules.
The document outlined broad goals but was noticeably limited on the specifics, prompting most stakeholders to reserve judgment. The Chamber of Commerce, for example, commended the administration for its "recognition that we must do no harm to the American jobs, businesses, and industries that depend on trade with Canada and Mexico" but otherwise had little to say. The National Association of Manufacturers similarly had little to say in response, instead stressing that the announcement was "the start of a critical negotiation process."
Those opposed to NAFTA could point to little they objected to in the White House's agenda. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, said the objectives "are filled with vague overtures making it unclear what will be demanded on key issues."
Labor groups, among NAFTA's most strident critics, were largely silent, with most not issuing any statement in response to the release, though several urged Trump to seek more expansive reforms in statements earlier Monday. "While we are heartened, that after all of these years, NAFTA will be renegotiated, we urge U.S. negotiators to adopt our suggestions for improving it. To begin with, any renegotiation that starts off with the current trade template found in (the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal) is unacceptable," said Robert Martinez Jr., president of the International Association of Machinists.
Canada and Mexico have said that the failed TPP deal, which Trump officially killed earlier this year, should be the basis for the renegotiations, a position that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also has advocated.
Environmental and other liberal activist groups were the most vocal and used the apparent revival of the TPP negotiations as their main objection. "In a blunt display of hypocrisy, Donald Trump appears to want to copy and paste the weak labor and environmental provisions of the TPP, a deal that Trump claimed to hate. Based on today's ‘plan,' one could be forgiven for concluding that Trump's opposition to the TPP was merely political theater and this administration has no intent of fundamentally changing NAFTA," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.