Some observers, including lawmakers and journalists, were left scratching their heads on Monday after President Donald Trump suggested he was ditching the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and switching to a bilateral U.S.-Mexico trade deal, while advocacy groups renewed their demand that any new trade deal must prioritize the needs of people and the environment over corporate profits.
Speaking from the Oval Office, where put Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on speaker phone, Trump said, "they used to call it NAFTA. We're going to call it the United States-Mexico Trade Agreement, and we'll get rid of the name NAFTA. It has a bad connotation because the United States was hurt very badly by NAFTA for many years. And now it's a really good deal for both countries, and we look very much forward to it."
???— Rep. Don Beyer (@RepDonBeyer) August 27, 2018
Does anyone understand what the President is doing with NAFTA? If so, please share details with Congress; he isn't making any sense right now.
Canada is Virginia's biggest export market, and millions of American jobs depend on trade with Mexico and Canada. https://t.co/LKDGhdzpUD
A press statement from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative issued Monday refers to "NAFTA."
The New York Times also reported:
while Mr. Trump may want to change the name, the agreement reached with Mexico is still Nafta, just a revised version with updates to provisions including those surrounding the digital economy, automobiles, and labor unions. Mr. Trump has often lambasted Nafta as a disaster, but the core of the trade pact, which allows American companies to operate in Mexico and Canada without tariffs, remains intact.
Trump said, "We will see whether or not we decide to put up Canada or just do a separate deal with Canada, if they want to make the deal." However, he added later that "one way or the other, we have a deal with Canada."
Peña Nieto stressed in the phone call his hopes that it would be "an agreement the way we proposed it from the initiation of this renegotiating process, a tripartite"—an understanding confirmed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office on Monday.
Toronto Star correspondent Daniel Dale reacted to the developments on Twitter, writing of Trump: "It is very clear that he does not know what he's talking about and that he's making this up as he goes."
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Dale and Alex Boutilier later reported at The Star:
a senior administration official, speaking to reporters later on condition of anonymity, said the Trump administration would, by Friday, issue a formal notification to Congress that a new trade agreement has been reached—whether or not Canada was part of it.
"Ideally, Canada will be in it and we'll be able to notify that,” the official said. "If Canada's not in, we’ll notify that we have an agreement with Mexico and we're open to Canada joining us. We will notify that we have a bilateral agreement that Canada is welcome to join."
The legalities and the politics of such a tactic were not immediately clear. For one, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said repeatedly on Monday, on Twitter and to Trump directly, that he wants a three-country agreement. Asked if Mexico had actually agreed to be part of a two-country agreement, a senior administration did not respond directly.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, for her part, is headed to Washington to join the talks. A spokesperson for her office said, "We will only sign a new NAFTA that is good for Canada and good for the middle class."
Even with the details yet to be seen, Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, expressed pessimism, saying that "we have no confidence that the Trump administration will truly address the many flaws in NAFTA."
"The devil resides in the details of these corporate-driven free trade deals," she continued, "and we expect that the fine print will include the kind of pro-polluter, pro-fossil fuel industry, pro-Wall Street deregulation that has been a hallmark of Trump's domestic agenda. These rumored trade provisions would codify the administration's savage attacks on environmental protection, food safety, and consumer rights into trade deals that enshrine and globalize deregulation, making it harder to restore U.S. environmental and consumer protections once this administration is shown the White House door."
"We need a new trade agenda that puts people, communities, and the environment ahead of corporate profits," she stressed. "Today's announcement is most likely a deregulatory wolf in fair-trade sheep's clothing."