After railing against the Trans Pacific Partnership during the campaign and removing the United States from the treaty, President Trump signaled last night that he is open to rejoining the trade deal.
The president tweeted at about 11:00 p.m. Thursday night, “Would only join TPP if the deal were substantially better than the deal offered to Pres. Obama. We already have BILATERAL deals with six of the eleven nations in TPP, and are working to make a deal with the biggest of those nations, Japan, who has hit us hard on trade for years!”
One of Trump's first acts as president was to withdraw the US from the TPP, which was never ratified by Congress. Trump signed the order to leave the treaty on January 23, 2017, only three days after becoming president. At the time, he said, “Great thing for the American worker, what we just did.”
Also on Thursday, the president also told a group of elected officials from “farm states” that he had asked economic adviser Larry Kudlow and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to consider whether the US should join the trade pact per Politico. It isn't clear what changes Trump would seek or whether other countries would agree to reopen negotiations on the trade deal that has already been ratified.
The move toward acceptance of the free trade deal is a radical departure for President Trump, who has spent the last several weeks talking about implementing protectionist tariffs on a long list of imported products. Trump has also engaged in a rhetorical trade war with China, which is not a party to the TPP.
During the campaign, Trump was critical of trade deals such as NAFTA and the TPP. At a campaign stop in Ohio in June 2016, he said, “The Trans-Pacific Partnership is another disaster done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country, just a continuing rape of our country.”
It is not clear what changed Trump's opinion of the TPP, but it is possible that he realized that the pact is needed to counterbalance Chinese influence in the Pacific region. The TPP includes Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. In recent years, Chinese trade and investment in Latin America has been growing in addition to the influence it already wields in Asia.
If Trump can successfully complete his 180-degree pivot on the TPP, it would not mark his first such reversal. The president has previously changed his mind on several issues from immigration to gun control to varying receptions from his base. Trump's anti-trade rhetoric won him support from blue-collar factory workers in the Rust Belt who believe that free trade pacts have been responsible for American job losses. If these voters are angered by Trump's reversal on the TPP, the president's pivot toward free trade might be short-lived.