The North American Free Trade Agreement, signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton with the public endorsement of every living former president, was one of candidate Donald Trump’s prime targets. Calling it “the worst trade deal ever,” the GOP nominee said scrapping NAFTA would be a top priority.
It’s not a top priority right now for President Trump — for reasons that are all too obvious, and some that might be less so. The Georgian who now serves as the nation’s agriculture secretary is among the latter.
For one thing, Trump has more pressing issues on his mind right now, and we’re not talking about his overseas travel plans. For another, he had already figured out by last month that simply quitting NAFTA would, like health care, be a complicated process.
"I decided rather than terminating NAFTA, which would be a pretty big, you know, shock to the system, we will renegotiate," the president told reporters in April. "Now, if I'm unable to make a fair deal, if I'm unable to make a fair deal for the United States, meaning a fair deal for our workers and our companies, I will terminate NAFTA. But we're going to give renegotiation a good, strong shot."
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That’s where it stands now.
Some of the back story in Trump’s softened stance, according to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, features former Georgia governor and now Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in a prominent role.
According to WSJ, the president planned on moving full speed ahead to show action on some of his top agenda items, including NAFTA, in the first 100 days of his administration. But Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Canadian President Justin Trudeau urged him to reconsider, and Trump said he’d think about it. Then, according to the Times, “the former Georgia governor and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross persuaded the president to stay his decision to scrap NAFTA by showing him a map of places in the country that would be hard-hit in the event of its demise.”
Perdue has also announced that the USDA is creating a new position of undersecretary for international trade, about which he said in a video presentation for the department, “I want someone who wakes up every morning and asks the question, ‘Where can I sell more U.S. products today, and what are the barriers to trade that we can take down today?’”
On Thursday, the administration sent a brief letter to Congress announcing plans to renegotiate NAFTA, but according to the Times, “promised no major modifications of the sort that the president has hinted he will seek.”
The previous Georgia governor appears to have provided the Trump administration with some wise counsel on international trade, at least with regard to agricultural products. If only his successor, the incumbent Georgia governor, could do the same with regard to criminal justice reform.