Trump's team talks over itself on trade, but one message is consistent

Donald Trump’s message on trade — bad deals! — has been unusually steady. This hasn’t prevented his closest advisers from differing quite substantially on trade.

The latest show of dissonance came last week as Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, shot down a reporter’s benign interpretation of the administration’s first hints on how it might renegotiate the North America Free Trade Agreement.

Spicer was asked about a Wall Street Journal article reporting the president was proposing only modest changes to the much-maligned NAFTA deal.

“I would just argue that Robert Lighthizer isn’t even nominated yet,” he said at the March 30 briefing, referring to the president’s pick to lead the Office of the US Trade Representative. “There is nothing in those documents that we are confirming — or in that report, rather, that we are confirming. That is not a statement of administration policy. That is not an accurate assessment of where we are at this time.”

“And I think our goal is to get Robert Lighthizer appointed as the next ambassador and US Trade Representative, and then when we have that we will have plenty of updates on where we go with respect to NAFTA and the rest of our trade agreements.”

On the same day, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was touting the president’s aggressive executive orders on trade, which called for a 90-day “investigation” into why the US has trade deficits with specific countries, a quixotic exercise most economists say show a deep lack of understanding of the workings of international trade.

Meanwhile, Lighthizer himself was meeting key senators and reassuring them on his intention to encourage rather than disrupt free trade. Indeed, the trade representative nominee’s talk of opening up markets to Asia was curious coming from a member of an administration that quickly followed through on its threat of jettisoning the long-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with 12 nations, many in Asia.

On January 19, the day before Trump’s inauguration, his pick for treasury secretary, former Goldman Sachs banker and Hollywood executive Steven Mnuchin, was already downplaying the president’s fervent anti-trade promises made during the campaign.

To recap, on the one hand we have a Wall Street Journal article, the trade representative nominee, and the treasury secretary all indicating a softer tone on trade. On the other hand, the press secretary shot down that article while the commerce secretary is taking a hard line.

Who to believe? As with all policies, the buck ultimately stops with the president. And his tone on trade hasn’t changed all that much.

As a candidate, Trump promised to sharply raise tariffs on Mexico and China while labelling the latter a currency manipulator. Trump has also vowed to build a wall on the US-Mexico border, erroneously blaming the southern neighbour for everything from manufacturing job losses to crime. He has so far refrained from implementing those promises, although his animosity has strained the US relationship with Mexico.

While the president’s advisors are sending conflicting messages, the president himself has been very consistent.

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