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Trump eyes 'termination' of NAFTA as negotiations continue

As talks get underway, Donald Trump is threatening to abandon NAFTA -- a trade policy he hates for reasons he hasn't explained.
Image: Trump speaks at Trump Tower in New York
U.S. President Donald Trump reacts to questions about the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia while speaking at his Trump Tower residence in New...

As his presidency reached the 100-day mark, Donald Trump wanted to do something dramatic, and the president thought canceling the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would do the trick. As Trump acknowledged, "I was all set to terminate. I looked forward to terminating. I was going to do it."

As we discussed at the time, Trump eventually changed his mind, however, saying he spoke with Canadian and Mexican leaders who convinced him not to walk away from the agreement. The Washington Post offered a behind-the-scenes look in April at how the president's team convinced him to change course (it apparently involved showing him a lot of maps).

Nevertheless, the drama surrounding Trump's intentions have opened the door to a new round of negotiations with America's neighbors. And how's that going? Vox's Matt Yglesias took a closer look this morning at the degree to which Canada is taking the process seriously.

According to Alexander Panetta of the Canadian Press, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau "has created an election-style nerve center to handle White House-related challenges" during the NAFTA renegotiation process. The team features eight staffers, including "two former trade officials, two senior PMO officials, an ambassador, a writer, a cabinet minister."The goal is to be able to push back on both a strategic and tactical level to presidential negotiating ploys, including social media threats to pull out of NAFTA altogether in order to gain leverage.... Canada also has a clear list of negotiating objectives, including both key NAFTA provisions that Trudeau's government is committed to keeping and aspirations to win more access for Canadian companies to state and local government contracts and more access for Canadian professionals like computer programmers to jobs in the United States.

OK, so it sounds as if Canada is taking this process seriously. How about the Trump administration?

Apparently, the White House has dispatched lower-level staffers to the talks, and they've focused so far on symbolic goals related to trade deficits.

The fact remains that Trump has condemned NAFTA many times, but there's no reason to believe the American president knows what it is about the trade agreement he doesn't like. He's never described his concerns in any detail, and it sometimes seems as if Trump opposes NAFTA because it's a trade deal he didn't negotiate -- which in his mind, necessarily makes it flawed.

This is, however, a deeply silly approach to public policy.

And yet, here we are. Last night in Phoenix, Trump again described NAFTA as "one of the worst deals that anybody in history has ever entered into" -- again, we have no idea why he believes this -- before criticizing the talks that he and his team appear unprepared for.

"Personally, I don't think we can make a deal, because we have been so badly taken advantage of," the president said, before adding, "So I think we'll end up probably terminating NAFTA at some point, OK? Probably."

The last time Trump started talking this way, White House aides reportedly reached out to Canadian officials in the hopes that Trudeau could help keep Trump from doing something irresponsible.