Despite delays, trade still front of mind for Trump during pandemic

April 13, 2020

President Trump’s trade agenda remains a top priority for him even as the administration struggles to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, which has upended government operations and delayed key negotiations.

During a coronavirus task force briefing on Friday, Trump pivoted to his trade policy in answering two questions about the administration’s response to the pandemic. He again invoked trade on Saturday when insulting two of his favorite targets: Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and the media.

“The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board doesn’t have a clue on how to fight and win,” he tweeted on Saturday. “Their views on Tariffs & Trade are losers for the U.S., but winners for other countries, including China. If we followed their standards, we’d have no Country left. They should love Sleepy Joe!”

While it wasn’t apparent what Trump was referring to, the WSJ’s editorial board has long opposed key elements of the president’s trade policy agenda, including his frequent imposition of tariffs.

During Friday’s task force briefing, Trump repeated criticisms of the World Trade Organization — as well as false claims that the U.S. is winning more WTO cases now that he’s president, and that China is paying tariffs the administration has levied on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods. He also acknowledged that the U.S. is blocking Appellate Body appointments, contending he dislikes that the U.S. has “minority” representation on the panel.

“We had always a minority position, meaning numbers of judges,” Trump said. “So we would have a minority number of judges. I said, ‘How do you win with a minority number of judges?’ But all of a sudden we’re winning.”

The Appellate Body has never had two members of the same nationality serving simultaneously and the U.S. was always represented on the panel until this past December, when Thomas Graham’s term expired. The Appellate Body lost its quorum in December because the U.S. refuses to allow new nominations.

While the president has been keeping trade policy issues in the limelight, trade negotiations have been delayed because of the pandemic. Citing guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative last week announced it was canceling an April 28 hearing scheduled to inform its objectives in a deal with Kenya. USTR extended the public comment period on those objectives from April 15 to April 28.

Efforts to launch negotiations with the United Kingdom have also stalled. USTR last week said talks would begin “in the near future,” but noted the two countries were prioritizing efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 before focusing on a trade agreement. British media reported that U.S.-UK talks were supposed to begin late last month. Both sides have expressed a desire to get a deal done as quickly as possible.

Trump this weekend also touted a deal made by major oil exporting countries to cut production, ending a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia that tanked the price of crude and caused the administration to consider putting tariffs on crude or issue waivers to the Jones Act. Reports say major oil exporters agreed to cut daily production by about 10 million barrels. Trump, however, claims the number is twice that.

“Having been involved in the negotiations, to put it mildly, the number that OPEC+ is looking to cut is 20 Million Barrels a day, not the 10 Million that is generally being reported,” he tweeted, referring to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and others.

Some lawmakers were clamoring for the administration to launch a Section 232 investigation into oil imports or use legislation to impose tariffs.

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, meanwhile, is still twisting in the wind as Canada and Mexico have both notified that they have completed the necessary steps to implement the deal, while U.S. lawmakers and auto groups urge the administration not to rush the deal’s entry-into-force. The three parties are discussing longer transition periods for auto rules of origin.

USMCA will take effect on the first day of the third month after the U.S. becomes the final party to notify it is ready to implement the deal. Citing the struggles manufacturers have experienced due to the pandemic, more than 30 House members last week asked the administration to give the auto industry a break on meeting USMCA’s rule-of-origin requirements.