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Many Republicans are moving closer to Donald Trump’s trade platform, breaking with decades of their party’s orthodoxy on the issue.
Trump has championed a fierce anti-free-trade agenda along the trail. The Republican presidential nominee frequently rips the North American Free Trade Agreement as the worst trade deal in history and has said the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is pending congressional approval, will continue the “rape of our country.”
Take Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa, for example. Branstad’s state relies heavily on exports for its rich agricultural economy. In 2011, he wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking his administration and Congress to enact pending trade agreements, estimating that the agreements would add roughly 5,000 jobs in the beef, pork, and poultry industries in his state. In 2015, Branstad, along with Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa, led trade missions to South Korea and Brazil, with Branstad saying in a release that his state had “reaped benefits” from such missions.
Speaking with Business Insider at the Republican convention, the longest-serving governor in US history labeled Trump’s position as “not really antitrade – he’s just anti-stupid decisions.”
“And what I take it is as constructive criticism that we need to cut a better deal that treats America better,” he said at a lunch for the Iowa delegation in Cleveland, adding: “We got to continue to break down barriers. We need free trade. It’s absolutely critical for agriculture and for job growth.”
He mentioned Trump’s running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, and his prior defense of free trade as proof that Trump’s position would not be too far from his own.
“So I believe that Trump understands that we need to do a better job of protecting America’s interests, but that doesn’t mean we don’t negotiate and try to get the best agreements we can get,” he said. “We just got to quit doing stupid things like the Iran deal and some of these things.”
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Just this week, Trump hammered Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for flipping her position on TPP from when she was secretary of state, saying that she “lied” about it and insisting that she would pass the landmark trade agreement among pacific-rim nations while in office.
The strong position against America’s trade agreements is more typical of the country’s left wing. During this week’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, some of the strongest anti-Clinton sentiment at the convention came from supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont cheering “no TPP” and holding up signs that said the same.
“I think in the end of the day, with the choice between the Democratic stand and our stand, I think people like farmers and businesses that are interested in this understand that Trump’s a better choice,” Branstad said. “Now, I understand and I think there’s some validity to the criticism that he’s made.”
Rob Portman, a Republican Ohio senator who is locked in a tough reelection bout against Ted Strickland, a former Ohio governor, is more connected to free trade than pretty much anyone else in Washington. Portman was a huge proponent of NAFTA and of the Central American Free Trade Agreement while he served in the House. And Portman served as the US trade representative under President George W. Bush.
He has found himself frequently under attack from Strickland, who voted against NAFTA while he served in the House, for his support of free trade.
With Trump in town for the Republican convention last week, Portman, who is supporting Trump, was asked by reporters how his position on free trade could jibe with Trump’s. He said both he and Trump had “pushed back on China.”
“I’ve pushed back on Republicans as it relates to China,” he said, adding that the Senate Finance Committee, of which he’s a member of, has had “some success” with “cracking down on Chinese imports.”
Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee echoed some of Portman’s sentiment, saying that Trump and his supporters were for “free and fair trade” but just didn’t like “what we have with China.”
“I think that what we hear from people and Mr. Trump is right in-line with people, and that is if they are for free and fair trade,” she said. “Indeed, you know people like to be able to manufacture for export.
“What they don’t like is what we have with China, where we have a $380-million-dollar-a-year trade deficit,” she continued. “They’re tired of jobs going overseas, and the money for products on our shelves is going overseas.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, one of Trump’s top supporters, told Business Insider on the floor of the convention that he thought his fellow colleagues were moving closer to positions held by Trump and himself on trade. During his convention speech last week, Sessions said Trump would help end “Obamatrade.”
“The data that’s coming in that I don’t think a lot of our people knew,” he said. “The economic models that predicted how the trade agreements would work have not been accurate. They’re very flawed.”
“I mean I voted for the trade agreements too in the past, but I think the American people are getting wise,” he said. “They felt it before the Wall Street and academic economists felt it.”
He called for all of America’s trade agreements to be “bilateral” – negotiated solely between the US and one country on a deal-by-deal basis.
- AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, another early supporter of Trump, said he didn’t think TPP was going to be making it through Congress in a Trump presidency.
“He has said and I take him at his word that he will renegotiate them to make them fair for America,” Shuster told Business Insider at a breakfast for the Pennsylvania delegation last week in Cleveland.
The chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said that, while he “can’t speak” for all of his fellow House Republicans, people he is close to have “always been very leery of these free trade agreements.”
“It happens under Republican presidents, but it’s really happened under this one,” he said. “We need a fair deal.”
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Rep. Tom MacArthur of New Jersey agreed with Shuster. He told Business Insider that he thought Obama’s biggest problem was that he wanted “to get deals done at all costs.”
The congressman – the only Republican from New Jersey’s House representation attending the Cleveland convention – said the new platform language on trade in a post-nominee Trump world was not all that different from where the party had been in the past.
“All it does is say that trade for trade’s sake is not … it’s trade that’s good for America, trade that creates jobs here at home, trade that doesn’t allow places to take advantage of us,” he said. “I support that, that is what we need, and by the way we haven’t had that. We have a president who wants to get deals done at all costs. So we can say he got the deal done, and we’ve had bad political deals and bad trade deals as a result.”
Shuster’s fellow Pennsylvania congressman Rep. Keith Rothfus also expressed “doubts” that TPP would be approved, adding that he was “one of the Republicans who was very concerned with where the Trade Promotion Authority was going under this president.”
He also said he lacked confidence that Obama was able to get the best deal done for America.
“I think Donald Trump will be looking out for that,” he told Business Insider last week. “Look, 95% of the consumers are outside of the United States, 75% of the wealth is outside the United States, we’ve got to be engaged in the world, and I would expect that Donald Trump would be looking for places for our products.”