Farmers Seek Signs That Trump Has Eased Opposition to Nafta

By William MauldinFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

When President Donald Trump addresses the U.S. agricultural community Monday, farmers will be looking for signs that a recent push to lobby him in support of the North American Free Trade Agreement has been successful.

That effort, which has included Republican senators from farm states offering charts and graphs illustrating the benefits of the trade deal, has left some hopeful that the administration has softened an earlier tough stance on Nafta. Fueling those hopes has been the president's refraining from harsh anti-Nafta rhetoric since his last tweet regarding the pact in August.

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"We're doing everything we can to have our voices heard," said Sen. Deb Fischer (R., Neb.), a rancher and one of several lawmakers who attended a steak lunch with Mr. Trump in December. Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) brought a chart showing a negative impact of Mr. Trump's anti-Nafta messages on hog futures. Last week, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) led another group to the White House to reinforce the message.

White House officials say Mr. Trump has continued to meet with "stakeholders on all sides" on the issue. One official familiar with the strategy said that in staying relatively quiet on Nafta, the president is giving U.S. negotiators maximum leverage in the talks.

Farm-state lawmakers say that in their sessions with him, Mr. Trump has been reassuring about Nafta, which has opened Mexican and Canadian markets to duty-free exports of billions of dollars in U.S. products.

On Monday Mr. Trump is scheduled to lay out his agriculture policies in an address to the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual convention in Nashville, Tenn. The address and the release of an accompanying government task force report on rural prosperity, administration officials say, will cover a range of challenges facing small communities, including broadband connectivity, health care, and legislation to reauthorize farm programs that expire this year.

But trade, and Nafta in particular, is foremost on the farm community's mind. The U.S. in 2016 sent $16.4 billion in agricultural and food products to Mexico and $23.4 billion to Canada, according to government figures. Farmers worry that without Nafta, the two U.S. neighbors would have the right to put tariffs on products from the U.S. and could turn to other countries for supplies of soybeans, corn and other farm products.

A senior administration official Friday said the task force report, which will make recommendations to the president, will recognize the need to be "sure that rural American agriculture is very fairly treated and has access to global markets."

How that will factor into the Nafta talks, which resume in Montreal on Jan. 23, is unclear. The negotiations haven't yet produced any major breakthroughs, and the gap between the U.S. and its North American partners at the negotiating table continues to worry business and farm groups that back Nafta.

"While the president is increasingly listening to the dire concerns of farmers and ag state lawmakers, nobody has a sense of whether he'll heed their warnings," said former Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, co-chairman of Farmers for Free Trade, which seeks to preserve existing agreements that lower tariffs on agricultural exports.

The U.S. chief negotiator, trade representative Robert Lighthizer, has complained that Canada and Mexico aren't working hard enough to reach an agreement with the U.S. He has proposed gutting Nafta's dispute-resolution systems, requiring high U.S. content in cars traded duty-free and inserting a "sunset clause" that would allow Nafta to expire if all three countries don't renew it every five years, according to people familiar with the positions.

Labor unions and left-leaning consumer groups have supported the tough stance. But business and farm lobbies have continued to lobby the administration by pointing to the benefits Nafta has brought over the last quarter century.

The farm-state lawmakers say they think they have made a difference.

"He said quite bluntly he had thought everyone wanted to get rid of Nafta, and that's not right," Ms. Ernst said in an interview."I can't speak to what the president intends to do going forward, but I think his perspective has changed a little bit."

After the December meeting, Mr. Roberts said Mr. Trump reassured him about Nafta's fate. "Before I could even say, 'Merry Christmas, Mr. President,' he looked at me and put his thumb up and said we're going to be all right on Nafta," Mr. Roberts said on C-Span last month.

One factor might be the changing sphere of influence around the president on trade.

Some of the Trump aides who were most critical of U.S. trade policy have exited the administration or seen their roles diminished. Economist Peter Navarro has settled into a more limited role leading a small White House trade and manufacturing office, while senior adviser Steve Bannon left the White House and is now a target of Mr. Trump.

In his last public comments on Nafta, at a political rally in Florida, Mr. Trump left open the possibility of any outcome. "We're gonna hopefully keep Nafta," he said, then added: "But there's a chance we won't. And that's OK."

Write to William Mauldin at william.mauldin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 07, 2018 21:14 ET (02:14 GMT)