Speaking beside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President Donald Trump held his cards close on renegotiating a major trade deal. Instead, the U.S. leader deployed his favorite answer that keeps the drama high but commits him to nothing: “We’ll see what happens.”
At the start of the first of two closed-door meetings with Trudeau on Wednesday, Trump was asked by a reporter if the North American Free Trade Act is as good as dead. Trump, the former “Apprentice” star, opted to flash his reality television chops rather than get into the details or describing any sticking points as U.S., Canadian and Mexican officials try to revamp the 1994 trade pact.
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said, then keeping the drama high by describing the three rounds of talks already completed as “a tough negotiation.”
The closest Trump came to tipping his hand came when he said this: “I think we have a chance to do something very creative that’s good for Canada, Mexico and the United States.”
(On the same question, Trudeau sidestepped the issue, saying only: “We’re negotiating at the moment” on NAFTA.)
The U.S. president has used some form of “we’ll see” when answering questions on many complex policy issues, including when asked by a Roll Call reporter whether he plans to attack North Korea.
As often is the case, Trump has sown plenty of confusion around both his true stance on the three-way pact and its future. On one hand, he has called it a terrible deal that should be terminated. On the other, he has suggested small changes here and there could get the United States the terms he prefers.
“I don’t think anything’s changed,” Trump said when asked about his multiple public proclamations about the talks’ outcome.
“We’re negotiating the NAFTA deal. It’s time after all these years,” Trump said. “And we'll see what happens. It’s possible we won’t be able to make a deal and it’s possible we will.”
The president, who campaigned on an “America first” platform that guides his governing decisions, said, “We have to protect our workers.”
“In all fairness, the prime minister wants to protect his people, also,” Trump said of Trudeau.
Then it was back to his favorite drama-sustaining line: “So we’ll see what happens.”
Trump talked about the pact in take it-or-leave it terms: “If we can’t make a deal, it will be terminated — and that will be fine. They’re going to do well. We’re going to do well.”
Speaking to reporters later in the day, Trudeau flashed a more reserved and measured style that is in stark contrast to Trump’s.
“We remain focused in a serious way on NAFTA negotiations,” Trudeau said.
He added that circumstances can change and that Canada is prepared for that.
“We are ready for anything,” Trudeau said.
The closed-door talks between the U.S. and Canadian leaders was held as their teams are trying, at Trump’s behest, to renegotiate what the president just a few weeks ago called “one of the worst trade deals ever made.”
Trump ran on a nationalist platform, and “America First” was the theme of his inauguration speech and that philosophy has guided much of his first nine months as America’s chief executive. The president has indicated that trade deals among the United States and multiple other countries allow those nations to take advantage of America; he often simplifies his stance to say he wants to get the country a “better deal.”
The White House session with Trudeau came a day after Trump told Forbes magazine the U.S. may need to leave NAFTA in order to get a better trade deal. The U.S. stance puts Canada, Mexico and business groups on edge.
Trudeau met earlier in the day with a key House committee, a rare move by a foreign head of state that shows just how high the stakes are for the ongoing NAFTA talks.
Sporting a smile, the Canadian leader emerged from a closed-door roundtable-style session with House Ways and Means Republicans and Democrats that ended with applause.
Trudeau exited with a smile, saying, “It went very well.” Several committee members called the discussion on NAFTA useful but not decisive.
Another sign of what’s at stake came from the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“An army of NAFTA supporters” will hit Capitol Hill Wednesday as the fourth round of talks on the 1994 trade pact start, Chamber CEO Thomas Donohue said in Mexico City. Donohue’s members worry about U.S. proposals to end arbitration dispute processes for businesses and set an automatic expiration date for NAFTA.