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Trump Trade Actions More Measured Than Campaign Talk, Goals Unclear

Emily Stewart

Editors' pick: Originally published March 31.

The Trump administration is moving on trade, but it's not quite clear exactly where it's headed.

President Trump signed two executive orders on trade on Friday -- one instructing the Commerce Department and U.S. Trade Representative to examine the United States trade deficit, and the other to seek better collection of anti-dumping and countervailing duties. This week, the administration also took steps toward outlining what it plans to seek on renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. The maneuvers mark the White House's most significant efforts on trade since it scrapped the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January, but its end goals are murky.

"So far, it hasn't been anything too radical, it's pushing in a slightly more protectionist direction but not blowing up the system," said Simon Lester, trade policy analyst at conservative think tank the Cato Institute. "They want to show they're talking tough...but the actual practice hasn't matched the rhetoric so far."

At the center of Trump's presidential campaign was a promise to get tough on trade. Since his election, he has touted what he says is an "America first" agenda and promised to secure "great" deals on trade. Beyond a preference for bilateral agreements over multilateral, details are slim on what "great" things he has in mind.

Friday's orders have a slightly more protectionist bent to them, but nothing mind-blowing.

"What stood out to me about them was just how much they differed from the from the very divisive rhetoric that we saw throughout the campaign," said Nikia Clarke, executive director at World Trade Center San Diego and member of former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker's U.S. Invsetment Advisory Council.

The first order gives the USTR and Commerce Department 90 days to examine "every form of trade abuse and non-reciprocal practice" contributing to the United States' trade deficit, said Press Secretary Sean Spicer in a press briefing ahead of the signing on Friday. Department heads will have 90 days to submit a report on the causes of what Spicer said was an "unduly large" deficit currently being experience by the United States.

"This will be a real analytical pinpointing so that it can form the basis of policy decision," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Fox News on Friday.

But what policies will come of it are hard to tell, if anything is to come at all. Moreover, the U.S. Trade Representative already puts out a multi-page report annually on all of America's trading partners and problems and opportunities with each.

"I don't understand why they just don't go back and read them," said Mickey Kantor, former trade representative in the Clinton administration from 1993 to 1996 and Secretary of Commerce from 1996 to 1997.

"It could just be kind of a study session-type thing that doesn't lead to much action," said Lester. "It depends on how they proceed with this, how objective they are about it."

The second order, which seeks to up collection of countervailing and anti-dumping duties, is similarly hazy. The Obama administration was the most active administration in history on trade enforcement, and while there is room to up the ante even more, it's not as though the U.S. isn't doing anything in the first place.

"From my perspective, it's a slightly more protectionist effort," Lester said.

On NAFTA

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that an administration draft proposal being circulated in Congress on NAFTA sought largely modest changes to the 1990s-era trade agreement Trump called a "disaster" during the campaign.

Many of the provisions mentioned appear to have been drawn from the now-scrapped TPP, including digital trade and commerce protections, tougher intellectual property enforcement and requirements that state-owned companies operate in a commercial fashion.

Kantor questioned Trump's reasoning in railing so hard against the TPP while apparently drawing so much from it to include in NAFTA now. Both Canada and Mexico would have been in the agreement.

"I am completely confused about where they're going," he said. "We didn't need to have all this drama about Mexico if we'd just maintained the TPP."

Gordon Ritchie, principal adviser at consultancy firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies and expert in U.S.-Canada trade relations, described the Trump administration's NAFTA renegotiation push "wish list" of items for the United States.

"At this point, what we're seeing is the sort of American wish list, and it includes the usual suspects," he said.

The United States and Canada have long had disputes over softwood lumber, for example, with American lumber companies complaining that the Canadian lumber industry is unfairly subsidized. Dairy has also been a long-running area of dispute, with Canada's market being relatively closed off to outside producers. House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, a Republican from Texas, said in an interview with Politico this week that more access to Canada's dairy market will be a top issue in NAFTA renegotiations.

"We've been arguing with Canada about lumber and dairy for a long, long time, and we will continue to argue it because they're both valuable to both countries," said Kantor.

Government procurement is on the Trump agenda -- NAFTA currently requires the U.S. government to consider bids from Mexican and Canadian companies on domestic infrastructure projects, and Trump appears to want to push "buy American" policies. The matter could become a contentious one if Trump's promised trillion-dollar infrastructure project comes to pass -- or if it results in U.S. companies being barred from bidding on projects in Mexico and Canada.

Rules of origin -- the percent of a product that must be produced in NAFTA countries -- are also mentioned in the Trump draft, which suggests they be set in a way that "supports production and jobs in the United States."

Ross told CNBC on Thursday that the provision is "obsolete" and a "back-door way" for non-NAFTA countries to take advantage of NAFTA, citing the auto industry specifically. "NAFTA's an old agreement, and many of these parts are no longer even used in cars because automotive technology has moved on," he said.

The Trump administration still has a long road ahead when it comes to trade. One-third of the trade triumvirate that is supposed to set the White House's agenda -- U.S. Trade Representative nominee Robert Lighthizer -- hasn't even received Senate confirmation yet.

"There's a lot of disagreement even in the administration over what the best deal for the United States might look like," Clarke said.

"Every country has its own individual interest in their own industry, and you're always going to have arguments. That's why you need a rules-based trading system," Kantor said. "Globalization is not going to go away, no matter what this administration may want."

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