Trump to Larry Kudlow: Go take a look at the U.S. maybe rejoining TPP

Um, what?

I’m a free-trader and so I’m not complaining, but bailing out of Obama’s Pacific trade deal was literally one of the first things Trump did as president. He campaigned on it. It’s a linchpin of his protectionist platform. He called it a rape of America, for fark’s sake.

And so I say again: What?

President Donald Trump has deputized two top economic advisers to review re-entering the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord he withdrew from after taking office, Senator Ben Sasse told reporters.

“He multiple times reaffirmed the point that TPP might be easier to join now,” Sasse said Thursday…

“He said that he was going to deputize, again, Larry Kudlow and Ambassador Lighthizer with reentering the TPP negotiations, and that’s really good news for America and frankly it’s really good news for the rule of law and economic security in the Pacific,” Sasse said.

Yeah, well, Sasse hates Trump and is probably distorting some innocuous comment Trump made about TPP at today’s meeting agriculture roundtable, right?

Or is he?

Trump gave the new orders to U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow during a meeting with lawmakers and governors on trade issues, according to two GOP senators in attendance.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said that he and others at the table raised the point that “if you really want to get China’s attention, one way to do it is start doing business with all the people they’re doing business with in the region: their competitors.”

Trump then told Lighthizer and Kudlow to “take a look at getting us back into that agreement, on our terms of course,” Thune said. “He was very I would say bullish about that.”

That’s the main reason to think Trump might be serious about this. The political value of TPP has always lay in constraining Chinese influence. With America out of the deal under Trump, Far East nations would naturally turn towards the regional superpower, China, as their new key trading partner. Ever since Trump slapped China with tariffs a few weeks ago, though, he’s been grasping for ways to outmaneuver them; when they answered his initial tariffs with more draconian tariffs on U.S. agricultural exports, he turned around and started chatting about $100 billion in additional restrictions. He’s finally got the economic standoff with China that he always wanted. But that left conservatives like Thune and Sasse with an easy opening at today’s meeting: We know a way you can really hurt China and it doesn’t even require a trade war. Just wriggle back into TPP and start steering China’s new regional clients back towards trade with the U.S. Sounds like POTUS might have gone for it!

But … probably not. This is a fair point:

He didn’t give Kudlow the orders to explore reentering TPP during a private Oval Office meeting. He gave it to him at a meeting with reps from states that depend heavily on agriculture for their economy, people who are *begging* POTUS to avoid a trade war lest the farmers back home get crunched by China’s retaliatory tariffs. When Thune made the point that rejoining TPP would put a hurt on China and avert a crisis for heartland America, probably every person in the room nodded and murmured assent. And you know how Trump is when he’s in front of an audience asking him for compromise. You’ve seen it with your own eyes. Remember Dianne Feinstein rubbing her hands with glee at a meeting a few months back when Trump sounded suddenly open to an assault-weapons ban? Remember him telling a group of senators at a White House huddle on immigration that he’d sign anything they bring him? He doesn’t like to disappoint an audience. So he tells them what they want to hear and then, once he’s back behind closed doors and his aides start twisting his arms, he retrenches. “We’ll look at rejoining TPP” may be the equivalent of him saying “we’ll see” whenever reporters ask him about firing Mueller or bombing Syria or whatever. He’s open to anything when a mic’s in front of him and then, the next day, he isn’t. Don’t read too much into it.

Besides, Ann Coulter and the six other “Former Trumpers” in America might freak out over this like they did about the lack of wall funding in the recent spending bill and then he’ll forget about the whole thing.

The X factor, though, is Kudlow. If Peter Navarro were in charge of economic advice right now, I’d pay no attention to any rhetorical farts about rejoining TPP. But Kudlow really will cheerlead for this. In fact, he’s reportedly been pushing something like TPP to Trump the past few days as a way to muscle China. *If* Trump can be sold on the idea, Kudlow will do his best to sell it. Stay tuned.