A Letter Shows President Trump's Evolution on Nafta

The letter sent by the Trump administration Thursday to Congress kicking off the North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiation process shows the evolution of the administration's tone and tactics from late March, when a preliminary draft had circulated on Capitol Hill. (See the original draft and new letter here.)

The new version strips out the earlier harsh antitrade rhetoric about the problems with Nafta, gives more prominence to the role of Congress -- and is considerably shorter, and more vague -- giving U.S. negotiators more flexibility as talks progress.

The new document reflects the expert hand of Robert Lighthizer, a Washington trade policy veteran, who was appointed as President Donald Trump's U.S. Trade Representative on Monday.

Mr. Lighthizer has said he shares the president's general desire to create a new, harder line American trade policy. But is now applying to that goal a savvier approach toward navigating the system.

Here's a look at some of the big changes in the approach to looming talks with Mexico and Canada.

Length: The old draft was eight pages long, the new one is less than one-and-a-half pages. The main difference: the March version contained a detailed list of parts of the pact the administration wants to change. The details drew flak from both right and left -- especially the latter, as Democrats and trade unions complained Mr. Trump had abandoned some of the more dramatic changes he and aides had pledged.

Trade Rhetoric: The old draft was filled with Mr. Trump's campaign-style rhetoric, stating that the 2016 election was a referendum to "rethink the issue of trade." and arguing that "the persistent U.S. deficit in goods trade with Canada and Mexico demands that this administration take swift action..." Those passages are gone from the new version, which just echoes the widely shared view that the quarter-century-old pact needs modernizing for economic changes like "digital trade."

Congress: Lawmakers who guard their authority in trade negotiations have been nervous about signs that Trump officials may be marginalizing their role. Both the old and new drafts mention "consulting closely with Congress." But the new one has more frequent, prominent, and specific mentions of the legislative role in the process. The old letter concluded with a pledge to lawmakers to "work with you throughout the process." The new version ends like this: "we commit to working with you closely and transparently throughout the process."

Write to Jacob M. Schlesinger at jacob.schlesinger@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 18, 2017 19:42 ET (23:42 GMT)