Thanks to the prodding of Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), President Donald Trump has ordered economic advisor Larry Kudlow and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to look into possibly re-joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
“The president multiple times reaffirmed in general to all of us and looked right at Larry Kudlow and said, ‘Larry, go get it done,'” Sasse said on Thursday. “If that happens, that’s huge news.”
Trump’s newfound openness is unusual, inasmuch as he previously called TPP a “disaster.” What is more, the arguments for joining the TPP have always been buttressed by the premise that refusing to join the agreement would only help China. As I wrote in February of 2017, “In the case of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), America’s abandonment of the deal only opens the door for China to fill the vacuum.”
It’s unclear why Trump is open to re-entering TPP now. Maybe the addition of free trader (and anti-tariff, free market conservative) Larry Kudlow to his economic team has something to do with it. Maybe it was that he met with a number of lawmakers who pleaded with him to reconsider his posture.
Or maybe it was Ben Sasse’s persuasion specifically that did the trick. This does seem to have been an impetus—a fact that critics of Trump’s Republican “enablers” should consider when criticizing them for not calling him a fascist and throwing a drink in his face as they storm out of the White House, vowing to impeach him at the first chance they get, and thereby abandoning the possibility of ever whispering sweet free market nothings in his ear.
Then again, it could simply be that Trump realized that, while pleasing his supporters in the rust belt, a trade war with China would alienate Trump fans in America’s breadbasket.
This is the most nakedly cynical explanation, and one would normally be inclined to assume it is the answer. But Trump isn’t a normal politician, and attempting to get inside his head is a difficult, if disturbing, exercise.
Bemoaning the trade imbalance was politically savvy while on the campaign trail, inasmuch as it allowed Trump to play populist demagogue and pander to the Rust Belt. But it never made much sense from a policy standpoint (as others pointed out, nations like Canada import way more steel to America than China).
With mid-west farmers up in arms over China’s threats of retaliation, however, the political benefits of protectionism evaporated. Enter Sasse, with a way to keep China in check and keep the agricultural community inside the tent.
Now, one could scold Trump for being on the wrong side of the issue from day one, or for changing his mind based on politics, not principle. But in the immortal words of John Goodman in Raising Arizona, “I’d rather light a candle than curse [his] darkness.”
There was a time when a foolish consistency meant a lot to me. Today, I’m content with converts. It’s hip to flip—so long as it’s in the right direction. And make no mistake, this is in the right direction if we actually want to stand up to China in a way that won’t cut off our own nose to spite our face.
Beijing prefers a bipolar dynamic, which is why re-engaging in the Pacific makes perfect sense. It would isolate China, opening the door for us to find new trade partners. (And, ideally, a multilateral strategy would involve re-engagement on TPP, as well as cyber doctrines to combat China’s intellectual property theft. For more on this, I highly recommend Jonah Goldberg’s recent podcast discussion with Ben Sasse.)
Now, before I go any further, a disclaimer is in order.
Dealing with Donald Trump is, it has been said, like “negotiating with Jell-O.” And as the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin cautions, Trump’s TPP comments “recall his gun control comments: telling present audience what they want to hear, prompting said audience to wishcast comments as policy rather than a momentary riff.”
What is more, it’s important to stress a caveat: Trump didn’t say he would re-enter TPP, just that he was open to looking at it. It’s entirely possible that tomorrow morning, we will awaken to Trump tweeting that he will never rejoin “that horrible one-sided globalist TPP scheme. Very bad. Not smart.”
Then again, Trump might actually stick with it. Indeed, White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters put out a statement on Thursday afternoon, which could allow Trump to flip-flop on TPP and save face at the same time: "Last year, the President kept his promise to end the TPP deal negotiated by the Obama Administration because it was unfair to American workers and farmers,” she wrote. “The President has consistently said he would be open to a substantially better deal, including in his speech in Davos earlier this year. To that end, he has asked Amb. Lighthizer and Director Kudlow to take another look at whether or not a better deal could be negotiated.”
In other words, Trump isn’t changing his mind or backtracking—he’s negotiating a better deal. Whatever gets him through the night.
How do we make sense of any of this, considering all the back and forths? I’m not sure we can. Trump might reverse course tomorrow. It could happen on a whim, or it could happen because of something that Sean Hannity says. Maybe Breitbart will write something dumb? Or he will see a Laura Ingraham tweet?
All we can do is encourage good behavior and call out bad behavior. And for today, at least, Donald Trump finds himself coming down on the right side of a hugely important issue. When this happens, we should say so. He’s right today. In 2018, who could ask for anything more?