WASHINGTON — The aggressive opening statement the United States made heading into the first round of the North American Free Trade Agreement talks raised eyebrows for its directness, but the content came as no surprise to auto industry officials seeking to block massive rules changes that could force a restructuring of their business strategies.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, channeling the same rhetoric Donald Trump rode from the campaign trail to the White House, characterized NAFTA as a failure for the U.S. manufacturing sector, pointing to trade deficits and more than 700,000 lost jobs from outsourcing as conditions that need to be reversed through an extensive overhaul. He drew attention to the US $68 billion auto deficit with Mexico and reiterated the administration's goal to tighten rules of origin that determine whether goods can cross the border duty-free as a way to spur U.S. manufacturing.
"It was a pretty hard-line opening statement, which heightens concern about how this is going to work out, but it's also only the opening statement," said an official for an international automaker who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the talks.
To follow through on the rhetoric and deliver the promised jobs to the U.S. manufacturing belt, the Trump administration will need the cooperation of the U.S. business community and key members of Congress, both of which sought to distance themselves from the embattled president last week.
Indeed, at the same time Lighthizer was pressing his case on behalf of U.S. manufacturing, Trump was forced to disband various advisory councils made up of top business leaders, many of whom recoiled at or openly denounced his tepid response to a white-supremacist rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Va.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra was on one of those councils, the White House's Strategic and Policy Forum, which GM had called "a seat at an important table" as the Trump administration dealt with issues such as tax reform and job growth. But Barra and fellow CEOs grew restive last week amid the Charlottesville furor, leading to the disintegration of the group.
"General Motors is about unity and inclusion and so am I," Barra said in a statement. "Recent events, particularly those in Charlottesville, Va., and its aftermath, require that we come together as a country and reinforce values and ideas that unite us — tolerance, inclusion and diversity — and speak against those who divide us."