Emails Show Tension Between Administration and Congressional Staff over NAFTA Renegotiation

Records obtained by American Oversight provide a behind-the-scenes look at the administration’s attempt to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), including emails rife with miscommunication, poor coordination, and tension between Congress and the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR).

In the week following his trip to Argentina for the Group of 20 summit, President Donald Trump sowed economic confusion about his supposed trade truce with China and said that he would move to cancel NAFTA, an effort to pressure Congress to approve the U.S.-Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) that he signed at the meeting.

But getting the USMCA through Congress could be difficult, and emails obtained by American Oversight indicate that lawmakers might not have had sufficient input in the agreement’s negotiation. The emails, sent between March 2017 and February 2018, show that the administration bungled its attempts to rewrite NAFTA from the start.

Miscommunication and Poor Coordination

The emails show a consistent lack of communication between USTR and congressional staffers. For example, on April 26, 2017, Angela Ellard, chief trade counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee, asked USTR Deputy Chief of Staff Payne Griffin to clarify contradicting messages from the White House about NAFTA. Ellard wondered why she had heard that there would be an April 27 meeting with President Trump “to discuss something short of renegotiation,” even though the White House had sent out a release on April 26 saying Trump had agreed to renegotiate NAFTA after a call with then–Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Griffin, one of the more senior officials at the agency in charge of trade policy, responded, “I’m not aware of that.”

Less than a month later, Ellard again asked Griffin for clarification after seeing an apparently surprising Politico article, which reported that the administration would be sending a letter notifying Congress that it was planning to open negotiations with Canada and Mexico.

“I just saw this story in which an Administration official and some unnamed Congressional aides say that the letter is coming up today. Are you all confirming this to the press? How did the discussions with Jayme and Jason go? What is the timing? We need to coordinate, and we’ll be slammed with press questions,” Ellard said.

Ellard and USTR staffers still had their signals crossed in July 2017, when Ellard received a USTR press release that laid out its NAFTA renegotiating objectives. Ellard forwarded it to USTR officials, saying, “This is public!”

“Yes. Sorry. Did the email ever come through?” said Cameron Bishop, the deputy assistant USTR for congressional affairs.

“Yes, at exactly the same minute that the USTR release came through,” Ellard replied. It seems that while Ellard had expected to receive the objectives before the general public did, USTR released them to Congress and the public simultaneously.

Through November 2017, the press continued to learn about USTR’s NAFTA renegotiation plans before Ellard. She sent a World Trade Online article with the headline “Trade ministers announce they will not travel to Mexico for fifth round of NAFTA talks,” and asked USTR officials if the story were accurate.

Chris Jackson, the assistant USTR for congressional affairs, said it was accurate, adding, “We found out today.”

At one point, Ellard even felt the need to clarify that Deputy Chief of Staff Griffin understood how NAFTA negotiations worked. In response to an email from Griffin about an upcoming press conference between U.S. officials and Mexico’s economy minister, Ellard said, “Just one point of clarification as to your last sentence — I just want to make sure that we all understand that outreach to trading partners isn’t triggered by sending us the draft 90 day letter, but instead that negotiations can begin after the 90 day period lapses.”

“Of course,” Griffin responded. “We will obviously engage in preliminary outreach before the ‘90-day’ period expires to inform Mexico and Canada that we are preparing to notify congress etc. However we will not be engaging in any formal negotiations until the period expires.”

Ellard wasn’t the only congressional staffer to seek clarification about the administration’s NAFTA plans. On October 31, 2017, Jayme White, chief adviser on international competitiveness and innovation at the Senate Committee on Finance, asked Chris Jackson, “Are we having a NAFTA negotiating round in December with ministers? In Ottawa? There seems to be confusion.”

Though the emails show that it was typically congressional staffers who became frustrated with the administration, there’s also some evidence that USTR officials worried about how congressional staffers handled the NAFTA rewrite process. In November 2017, a USTR official (the sender line isn’t in the email) forwarded a story about a sixth round of NAFTA talks in December 2017, expressing USTR concerns that the article’s sources were Finance Committee staff. “Hey Jayme, just checking. You/your team didn’t share my previous email with Jenny Leonard, right?”

Some trade officials, though, seemed unaware of the tension between USTR and Congress. Assistant USTR John Melle said to Ellard in August 2017, “I am told a lot of the reporters [at a press briefing call] will be new to trade talks. I will tell them not to call NAFTA a treaty and such things. Will explain the critical role of the US congress!”

Administration Nonresponsiveness

Starting in August 2017, Ellard tried for nearly a month to schedule a meeting where Ways and Means Chair Kevin Brady and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer could discuss NAFTA renegotiations. Ellard followed up at least seven times, and was consistently met with either non-commitment or no response at all. Her first request was on August 14.

She then sent follow-up after follow-up.

As of September 7, 2017, when the thread of scheduling emails ends in our documents, Ellard was still trying to schedule a meeting between Brady and Lighthizer.

In January 2018, Senator Pat Toomey’s staffer Brad Gantz became frustrated when he learned that Douglas Peterson, deputy to chief international trade counsel Shane Warren, might replace Warren at a meeting with Toomey. “I’d prefer Shane and am annoyed by this but if we have to so be it,” Gantz said.

Brett Doyle, the USTR senior director for congressional affairs who was copied on the email thread, tried to placate Gantz: “He’s good people, former CATO guy,” he wrote, indicating that he thought Peterson’s affiliation with the conservative Koch-backed Cato Institute made him a suitable replacement for Warren.

Substantive Concerns in Congress

It wasn’t just how the administration handled NAFTA renegotiations that worried congressional staffers and members of Congress. The emails we obtained also show that the content of the revised NAFTA text raised serious concerns on Capitol Hill.

In September 2017, Ellard emailed USTR Chief of Staff Jamieson Greer on a Sunday afternoon: “We are very concerned about several of the texts that have been posted for Congressional review since Friday evening. Do you have a moment to talk this afternoon?”

A couple of months later, Jayme White, the Finance Committee staffer, sent a letter signed by technology industry trade groups to USTR official Chris Jackson. The letter stressed the importance of NAFTA’s copyright protections for companies and discouraged the administration from attempting to revise them. In attaching the letter, White said, “If you look at the associations signing, it’s a pretty damn strong letter. Basically, it’s everybody.”

Congressional concerns persisted into 2018. On January 18, Senator Johnny Isakson’s foreign policy adviser Ryan Evans reached out to USTR to emphasize constituent concerns about the administration’s NAFTA stance: “[O]ur office is hearing a lot, as you might imagine, about protecting the apparel supply chain – from cotton growers to the zipper manufacturers to the retailers, who have a significant footprint in Georgia. I wanted to make sure you were aware of that since they are very concerned about the recent messaging around terminating NAFTA.”

These emails aren’t the first to highlight the administration’s mismanagement of NAFTA renegotiations. Earlier this year, we uncovered emails between USTR and business leaders in which various companies expressed serious concerns about how the administration handled trade. We also received emails between USTR and steel industry lobbyists that exposed USTR’s practice of granting insider information to lobbyists at Lighthizer’s former firm.

The documents American Oversight has obtained show that the administration’s renegotiation blunders represent a pattern, not an aberrance, and millions of workers could ultimately pay the price for its ineptitude.