USTR Emails Reveal Tensions, Inconsistencies in Trump Administration’s NAFTA Strategy

Emails obtained by American Oversight from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) shed light on the administration’s disorganized efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The emails show that in a hasty attempt to scrap and replace NAFTA, USTR and the administration alienated stakeholders, rushed through processes for soliciting comment, and even held contradictory public positions on NAFTA.

In an April 2017 email to 24-year-old deputy chief of staff Payne Griffin, a vice president at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) said, “[t]here are all sorts of disturbing rumors about a withdrawal being noticed.” Apparently, USTR had done a poor job of communicating with NAM, an organization that represents the interests of thousands of U.S. companies, about the administration’s intended NAFTA moves. The NAM official continued: “I would hope that there would be actual conversations with the NAM and others before that happens.”

A few months later, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce emailed Jamieson Greer, chief of staff at USTR, about tense meetings between the administration and stakeholders earlier in 2017. “I think folks are still recovering from meetings earlier in the year held elsewhere with the Administration that sounded alarm bells. . . . I sat through a highly contentious meeting where we were told we’d be lucky to get an e-commerce chapter in NAFTA,” the Chamber of Commerce official said.

The administration’s hurried attempt to renegotiate NAFTA also meant that USTR didn’t leave enough time for outside comment or input. In one email exchange between a USTR official and the chair of a state government advisory committee, the chair, Robert Hamilton, said, “[t]he quick turnaround time and the cascade of new proposal[s] is impossible to manage.”

Not only did USTR frustrate outside stakeholders, it even failed to align its public messaging on NAFTA with that of other parts of the administration. In a May 2017 email, John Melle, an assistant USTR, said that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s public statements on NAFTA were “[n]ot helpful – and not the message [Ambassador Lighthizer] was delivering!”

USTR did seem to pay attention to the interests of at least one US company, though: between July and September 2017, USTR Ambassador Lighthizer had two calls and one meeting with CEO AT&T Randall Stephenson. The calls and meeting appear to have related to Mexico.

The first call took place in July 2017.

In preparation for the August call, an AT&T representative said, “significant and troubling developments have occurred [in relation to Mexico] which AT&T believes necessitate direct involvement by Ambassador Lighthizer and US Government.”

Finally, Lighthizer and Stephenson had an in-person meeting in September 2017 to continue their conversations about a “recent Mexican Supreme Court decision that adversely impacts competition reforms as they relate to the telecommunications industry.”

The mismanagement and disorganization that have plagued USTR’s NAFTA renegotiation efforts come as little surprise. After all, USTR is an agency whose deputy chief of staff is a 24-year-old with no government experience, and whose officials grant industry representatives special access. But USTR and the administration’s bungled renegotiation attempts could cause serious harm to the millions of Americans whose jobs hang in the balance.

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