U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who has opposed many of President Donald Trump’s trade moves, seems to be coming around to his mercurial style at a pivotal time for the American trade agenda.
Mr. Isakson, a Georgia Republican who challenged Mr. Trump on issues like the decisions to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, seems more convinced now that the president’s use of threats as leverage can be effective.
“I love to be proven wrong, and in this case, the president’s position was the right negotiating position going in,” Mr. Isakson said of the March tariff decision during a speech to the Atlanta Council on International Relations Wednesday.
In a later interview with Global Atlanta, he clarified that while he objected early on to this style, Mr. Trump’s strategy is showing signs of working.
“It looks like what he’s done was a catalyst to be able to get people to rethink their position,” Mr. Isakson said, referencing momentum toward a NAFTA deal that all sides hope to wrap up by the end of next week.
The senator also spoke about the TPP, the 12-nation deal with Pacific Rim countries from which Mr. Trump withdrew almost immediately after taking office.
Mr. Isakson supported the deal — especially as an assurance of support for America’s Pacific allies in view of a rising China — and cautioned Mr. Trump against pulling out of it. The president’s response?
“He said, ‘Once they realize we’re serious, they’ll come back to the table and negotiate some things they wouldn’t do before,’” Mr. Isakson said. He doesn’t believe this looks so farfetched anymore.
“I’m not making an announcement. I don’t speak for anybody but myself, but I think we’re getting in better and better position because he’s a skilled, consummate negotiator.”
Mr. Isakson may be convinced, but Mr. Trump himself doesn’t seem to be.
Earlier this month, the president surprised lawmakers by saying he would direct his trade team to look into returning to the TPP, a deal he lambasted on the campaign trail. The overture was welcomed by Japanese officials (including the consulate general here in Atlanta).
Five days later, though — while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting Mr. Trump at his Mar-a-lago resort — the president took to Twitter to say he doesn’t “like the deal” and prefers bilateral agreements.
Japan has always sought U.S. participation in the broader TPP and even left the door open to U.S. re-entry after signing the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (the so-called “TPP11”) passed by the remaining partners in Santiago, Chile, on March 8. What Japan hasn’t done, despite Mr. Trump’s tweets, is agree to negotiations on a bilateral deal.
Dissonance on Agriculture
Mr. Isakson’s warming to Mr. Trump’s positions comes with its own level of dissonance. He praised Mr. Trump’s brinksmanship while warning against effects that have proven relatively predictable if the past is any guide.
When cornered, trading partners have often threatened their own tariffs on products that will hurt American leaders most politically. In the U.S., especially under Mr. Trump, that means agriculture — and both China and the European Union have threatened retribution on American farm products, from pork to sorghum to whiskey. The senator conceded that this wouldn’t be that bad of a strategy.
“The best way to punish the United States if it gets too boisterous on trade is to slap tariffs and costs on our agricultural products,” Mr. Isakson said, adding that the U.S. had to make sure “trade deals are robust and not punitive.”
This concern has helped keep Mr. Trump open to modifying his trade policy in the past, including when Agriculture Secretary and former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue reportedly used a political map to talk the president out of scrapping NAFTA.
Mr. Isakson met recently with Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, who is in charge of negotiations on retooling NAFTA and who will join other Trump administration officials on a high-level delegation to China this week aimed at addressing imbalances in that relationship.
During the meeting, Mr. Isakson pressed Georgia’s interests in upcoming trade deals, from protecting Georgia-filmed motion pictures from piracy to improving rules of origin on automobiles and the need to ramp up cybersecurity.
‘Unpredictability’ an Asset in North Korea Talks
The senator didn’t mince words in describing how useful the president’s “unpredictability” has been in getting North Korea to the table.
“There’s not a better place to be unpredictable than with the Communists, because you keep them worried about what you’re doing rather than you worrying about them. They know he’ll engage, so that’s not a question. They just don’t know how, and the fact that they can’t predict that drives them crazy. It really works to our benefit,” Mr. Isakson said during the interview.
Those remarks came after Mr. Isakson praised Mr. Trump for responding to an alleged chemical attack in Syria with a barrage of airstrikes aimed at degrading weapons-making capabilities, an enforcement of an American “red line” in the conflict Mr. Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, didn’t back up with force.
Also in his speech, Mr. Isakson said he’s hopeful about the potential outcomes of a Trump summit this month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but he sounded a note of caution.
“I’ve seen the first version and I hope this isn’t going to be a rerun,” he said.
In his view, full denuclearization of the Korean peninsula has to be the objective of the talks.
“There’s no other goal. There’s no second step. There’s no interim step, nothing else. We want total removal of nuclear fissionable material and weapons made therefrom on the Korean peninsula, and we want it as fast as possible. And I think that’s what we’ll get.”