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Commerce Secretary Ross: 'My biggest priority is getting NAFTA on the right foot'

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says his biggest priority in 2017 is getting the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) “on the right foot” without starting a trade war.

Speaking with Yahoo Finance’s editor-in-chief Andy Serwer at the Milken Institute’s Global Conference, Ross said the Trump administration is currently waiting on Congress to give them trade promotion authority to renegotiate the trade agreement.

“It’s only Congress that would think that something that has 90-day intervals before you get going is ‘fast track,'” Ross said. “Once we do get going we will engage with both Canada and with Mexico probably with the objective of two bilaterals that match and are symmetrical.”

On the campaign trail, President Trump took a critical stance on NAFTA, calling it “the worst trade deal ever.” Instead of scrapping it, the objective now is to fix it.

“You need something to fix the relationships with your two neighboring countries,” Ross said. “We’re not coming into this with a blank slate, we’re coming into it with supply chains and everything else that have been built up over several decades. But NAFTA is at best an obsolete agreement, it’s many decades old, the economies of the U.S., Mexico and Canada are quite different from what they were when NAFTA was started.”

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross speaks with Yahoo Finance’s editor-in-chief Andy Serwer at the Milken Institute Global Conference on May 1.

Ross disagreed with characterizations that Trump has been inconsistent with his position on NAFTA. A partial draft of a proposal for NAFTA was leaked to the press recently that showed a less aggressive stance on NAFTA than from the campaign trail.

“This White House, as any White House should, encourages lively debate, encourages vetting of all the alternatives before making a decision,” Ross said.

“So the idea that somebody leaked out one of the documents and that got blown up by the media into something that was more than it needed to be was wrong. And the real problem wasn’t the document, the real problem is the leakage of something that was not a policy paper.” 

Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.

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