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Trump trade policy report suggests he might resist WTO system

Trump trade policy report suggests he might resist WTO system
President Trump speaks during the opening of a listening session with manufacturing CEOs in the White House. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

The Trump administration Wednesday sent its strongest signal yet that it was prepared to buck the international trade order, including confronting the World Trade Organization, to assertively defend the economic interests and sovereignty of the United States.

In a mandated annual report to Congress outlining the president's trade agenda, the administration repeated Trump's warnings that the U.S. would take tough measures to combat dumping and other unfair practices by trading partners and ensure a level playing field.

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The document, like Trump's speech to Congress on Tuesday, was striking in its lack of specifics on what actions the president intended to take.

At the same time, the administration gave notice to the rest of the world that the U.S. would no longer tolerate distortions in global markets and that it stood ready to make a radical break from the past by emphasizing U.S. laws instead of deferring to global trading rules set by the WTO. The organization regulates trade and settles disputes among the more than 150 member nations, including the U.S.

Trump has criticized the WTO before, but Wednesday's report took pains to diminish the authority of the Geneva-based body. The report noted that the WTO rules were written with the understanding that participating countries would abide by free-market principles and be transparent about their regulatory systems, when in fact that's not the case with some.

"The hope was that such a system could obtain better treatment for U.S. workers, farmers, ranchers, and businesses. Instead, we find that in too many instances, Americans have been put at an unfair disadvantage in global markets," the report said.

"Under these circumstances, it is time for a new trade policy that defends American sovereignty, enforces U.S. trade laws, uses American leverage to open markets abroad, and negotiates new trade agreements that are fairer and more effective both for the United States and for the world trading system, particularly those countries committed to a market-based economy."

The administration said specifically that one of its key trade policy objectives would be "resisting efforts by other countries -- or members of international bodies like the World Trade Organization -- to advance interpretations that would weaken the rights and benefits of, or increase the obligations under, the various trade agreements to which the United States is a party."

Congressional Democrats roundly criticized Wednesday's report for failing to provide details, while some also expressed concerns that the Trump White House was staking out an extreme position.

"It sounds like the administration is considering a far too drastic response," said a statement by Rep. Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, and Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), the trade subcommittee's ranking member.

"We need to fix the problems with the current international trading system, not scrap the system altogether," they said.

Nate Olson, trade director at the Stimson Center, a think tank, sounded alarmed.

"It's downright disingenuous — and dangerous — to claim a mandate for breaking faith with the WTO," he said. "Trade wars break out when the rules of the game are unclear or purposely undermined. That strengthens nobody."

The 336-page report, which also provided highlights of trade activities in 2016, was issued by the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the president's main agency on trade.

The report said a more detailed account of Trump's trade agenda will be provided later, after the Senate has confirmed a trade representative. Trump has picked Robert Lighthizer, a veteran trade lawyer and negotiator, for the post, but a hearing on the nomination has yet to take place.

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