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The Wall Street Journal Nafta in Neverland

The North American Free Trade Agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico was on its way out Wednesday morning. Until it wasn’t. Meet Donald Trump’s trade policy.

Early Wednesday a leak from the White House said a Trump decision was imminent to pull the U.S. out of Nafta. The Mexican peso fell immediately, followed by you-cannot-be-serious howls of panic from American exporters of agricultural products and beef and by Members of Congress from Massachusetts to Arizona.

The leak that Nafta was about to die is known in some quarters as jumping the gun, and by day’s end the White House had walked it back, adding that Mr. Trump had productive phone calls through the day with the leaders of Mexico and Canada.

On Thursday morning President Trump tweeted out his account of the goings-on. The two trading partners had asked for a negotiation instead of U.S. withdrawal. Mr. Trump said: “I agreed subject to the fact that if we do not reach a fair deal for all, we will then terminate Nafta. Relationships are good-deal very possible!”

Getting tough on trade, notably over Nafta, was central to the Trump presidential campaign. With the abstraction known as his first 100 days pending Saturday, Mr. Trump this week has begun trade actions against Canadian lumber, Nafta and foreign aluminum producers.

Mr. Trump may think this is all part of a negotiation to get a better “deal,” but it isn’t clear there’s much better to get. Mexican tariffs on imports of U.S. agricultural products, and most other goods, are nearly zero. U.S. agriculture’s three biggest export markets are China, Canada and Mexico.

Other U.S. exporters to our Nafta partners similarly benefit from nominal tariffs on their products. That is why an official of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said Wednesday that terminating Nafta “is one of the most dangerous moves we can make at this time.”

Mr. Trump has his reasons for disliking Nafta, none of which are good. And if he isn’t careful, he could do great damage to much of the U.S. economy.

Appeared in the Apr. 28, 2017, print edition.

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