Speed Reads

Trump v Free Trade

Trump says he really wanted to 'terminate' NAFTA, threatens to end U.S.-South Korea trade pact instead

Spurred on by chief strategist Stephen Bannon and trade adviser Peter Navarro, President Trump was eager to announce he's triggering a U.S. exit from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) at a rally on Saturday, his 100th day in office, Trump told reporters Thursday night. "I was all set to terminate," he told The Washington Post. "I looked forward to terminating. I was going to do it." He has said publicly that phone calls from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau changed his mind.

"They called me up, they said, 'Could we try negotiating?'" Trump explained. "I said, 'Absolutely, yes.' If we can't come to a satisfactory conclusion, we'll terminate NAFTA." He told The Wall Street Journal that he told Peña Nieto he'd have to "think about it," but after Trudeau called a half an hour later, he decided "they're serious about it and I will negotiate rather than terminate." Trump's senior advisers say the president had already decided not to pull the plug before he spoke with the Canadian and Mexican leaders, dissuaded by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, adviser Jared Kushner, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce members.

Perdue made his case with a map of areas that would be affected by pulling out of NAFTA, many of them "Trump country" agricultural and manufacturing belts. "It shows that I do have a very big farmer base, which is good," Trump told The Washington Post. "They like Trump, but I like them, and I'm going to help them." He still took some persuading, Trump said, recounting that at one point he turned to Kushner and asked, "Was I ready to terminate NAFTA?" Kushner said yes.

With NAFTA safe for now, and Trump eager to reassure his nationalist-minded supporters before the 100 day mark, Trump took aim at another free trade deal Thursday night, calling the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (Korus) with South Korea "a horrible deal," adding, "We're getting destroyed in Korea." He called the deal, ratified in 2011, "a Hillary Clinton disaster" that "should've never been made," and noted that unlike NAFTA, if he withdraws from the deal, it will terminate immediately, not in six months. "We've told them that we'll either terminate or negotiate," Trump told The Washington Post. Trump also said he wanted to charge Seoul about $1 billion for using the U.S. THAAD missile-defense system, an idea South Korea rejected.