WASHINGTON — President Trump told aides to look again at re-entering negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a massive Asia-heavy trade deal that Trump repeatedly denounced on the 2016 campaign trail and had killed just last year, Republican lawmakers said Thursday.
GOP senators and governors from the Midwest, who met with Trump to argue that a looming trade war with China would hurt U.S. agriculture, said they told the president that partnering with other Asian countries would put pressure on the Chinese to end unfair trade practices.
Lawmakers did not know how seriously Trump was about seeking to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposal he attacked as the kind of trade deal that helped ship jobs overseas.
Trump withdrew the U.S. from the TPP negotiations shortly after taking office in early 2017, and has bragged during political rallies about killing the deal.
"Clearly, it's a deliberative process," said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., one of the Republicans who met with Trump.
The White House, meanwhile, said Trump has not changed his position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and there would have to be significant changes to the trade deal as proposed.
"Last year, the president kept his promise to end the TPP deal negotiated by the Obama Administration because it was unfair to American workers and farmers," said White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters. "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 U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Larry Kudlow, the new director of the National Economic Council, have been assigned "to take another look at whether or not a better deal could be negotiated.”
Thursday night, Trump said in a tweet he would join TPP only “if the deal were substantially better” than the one developed by President Barack Obama’s administration. He particularly called out Japan, "who has hit us hard on trade for years!"
Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are set to meet next week at Mar-a-Lago.
Delegations from Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, Montana, Kansas and South Dakota visited Trump at the White House Thursday to express concern about trade conflict with China.
The Trump administration's threats to put tariffs on Chinese goods has led to counterthreats by China on U.S. goods — moves that agriculture leaders say will lead to higher prices for everybody.
Trump is also threatening to withdraw from another major trade deal, the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. The president told reporters at the lawmakers' meeting that the sides are still negotiating a better NAFTA agreement, and there is "no timeline" for final decisions.
Trump told his guest he would take steps to help farmers, including new ethanol support.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the group told Trump they would "prefer trade as opposed to aid," and urged him to take another look at the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Roberts and other attendees said Trump asked Kudlow and Lighthizer to take another look at TPP.
“He looked Larry Kudlow right in the eye and said, ‘Go get it done,'" Sasse said.
Delegation members said they shared concerns about Chinese trade practices — "China cheats in lots and lots of ways," Sasse said — but a tariff war might not be the best way to get them to change.
The other TPP members — Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam — are negotiating their own trade agreement, without the United States.
Joining that group would expand U.S. markets, and "that puts pressure on China," said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who also met with Trump.