To hear Donald Trump tell it, he and his team achieved a historic breakthrough on trade policy yesterday. I wish that were true, but it's not.
The U.S. and Mexico struck a trade deal designed to supplant the North American Free Trade Agreement, President Donald Trump said in the Oval Office Monday.Trump and other administration officials hope that Canada, the third party to NAFTA, will sign on to the agreement, which still must be ratified by Congress. But Canada and the U.S. have been at loggerheads over trade policy, and negotiations among the three countries were paused so that the U.S. could talk directly with Mexico.
Let's back up to provide some context. For about a year, the Trump administration has engaged Canadian and Mexican officials in renegotiating the terms of the existing NAFTA agreement, which the president claims to hate, despite never fully explaining why. The months-long process has been a struggle, and by all accounts, the countries are not yet close to a trilateral deal.
Recently, however, Trump's team has been working directly with Mexico on a provision related to auto manufacturing, and yesterday, the White House announced that those talks resulted in an agreement. That's not nothing, and it may move the administration closer to its goal.
But it's only a step. The Atlantic's David Frum joked yesterday, "Congratulations to the Trump administration on reaching a preliminary agreement in principle to begin negotiations with half of America's NAFTA counterparties with a view to revising one section of the trade agreement!"
The American president, however, desperate for a win and the completion of some kind of trade deal, made a series of claims that were largely incoherent.
At one point yesterday, for example, Trump said, "This is one of the largest trade deals ever made. Maybe the largest trade deal ever made." That's absurd. It's not really a trade deal -- Mexico still expects Canada's involvement in a trilateral agreement -- and even if it were, it wouldn't be anywhere close to the largest in history.
The Trump administration isn't even calling it a deal, choosing instead to describe it as a "preliminary agreement in principle."
The American president also claimed, twice, that he'll "be terminating the existing [NAFTA} deal." That's wrong, too. In fact, the opposite is true: U.S. officials are still trying to renegotiate the terms of the existing NAFTA deal, even as their boss tells the world from the Oval Office that the trade agreement is being replaced with an incomplete deal Trump apparently doesn't understand.
Complicating matters, the idea that Trump can unilaterally "terminate" the international agreement, just because he says so, is highly dubious.
What about our neighbors to the north? The American president added, "As far Canada is concerned, we haven't started with Canada yet." In reality, U.S. officials have been in talks with Canadian officials for about a year, which meant the comment reinforced concerns that Trump has no idea what he's talking about.
At the same time, Trump is characterizing the policy effort as if he's committed to two separate trade agreements -- one with Mexico, one with Canada -- which isn't how his trade partners see it and isn't how his own administration is approaching the negotiating process.
All of which suggests that the American president, while speaking on camera from the Oval Office, peddled nonsensical claims that he appeared to be making up as he went along.
The Washington Post's Catherine Rampell added, "In other words, it's precisely the puffery we've come to expect from a president who doesn't understand what his own administration is doing, or doesn't care."
The New Republic's Jeet Heer suggested that the best-case scenario would be for the parties in NAFTA to "just ignore Trump's misrepresentation and continue with negotiations, treating the president as background noise."
That would likely increase the odds of success, but isn't it a shame that everyone has to hope the American president's ignorance and incoherence doesn't get in the way of important policymaking?