Politics & Government

'Did you have to lasso him that tight?': Kansas senators pressed Trump on trade

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump AP

President Donald Trump's chief of staff protested to Sen. Pat Roberts, asking why Roberts had to "lasso him that tight" after lawmakers pressed Trump in an April meeting to rejoin an international trade agreement hailed by Kansas farmers, the senator said.

Trump publicly flirted with rejoining the Trans Pacific Partnership after the April 12 meeting before tweeting a few days later that it's a bad deal for the United States.

But Trump's top agricultural official is keeping hope alive that the president may yet change his mind again. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told Kansas farmers on Wednesday he’s optimistic Trump can eventually be persuaded to rejoin TPP.

A reversal would mark a significant victory for Roberts and Sen. Jerry Moran, who both support TPP and have been pushing the president to reconsider. They have also warned him to avoid a trade war.

Perdue said Trump can be convinced to take a second look at the TPP after the United States makes progress in negotiations over a trade agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico and in its ongoing trade battle with China.

“I’m optimistic, I think, when we get some early wins,” he said.

Perdue said that he thinks “we can persuade that that would be the most effective trading tool that we could utilize in that regard going forward. But we probably need to get some wins on the board before taking that up.”

TPP was never fully ratified, but was often supported by Kansas farmers because it would have allowed more exports of Kansas beef and other products to the Pacific Rim. Critics had said the deal would have harmed U.S. manufacturing and cost some workers their jobs.

Trump has been engaged in a trade feud with China in recent months that has produced escalating threats and counter-threats. This week, the White House said it plans to move forward with plans for tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese goods.

“You put us back into TPP and we disadvantage China and we advantage our own producers, including livestock producers in Kansas,” Moran said.

Lawmakers – including Moran and Roberts – huddled at the White House on April 12 and pressed the president to reconsider TPP.

The two senators recounted the gathering during an agricultural panel discussion near Manhattan on Wednesday that was also attended by Perdue.

During the April 12 meeting, Trump turned to economic adviser Larry Kudlow and said maybe the U.S. should get back into TPP, Moran said.

As the meeting was winding down, Roberts said he asked Trump what they could tell the press — whether they could say that they would take a new look at TPP. “And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, we can do that,” Roberts said.

“So there was a race out there to get to the microphone to say the president was going to take another look at TPP,” he said.

Roberts said that on his way out, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly pulled him aside.

“He says, ‘Did you have to lasso him that tight? You know, you didn’t give him any wiggle room' and everything else. I said he needs to get tied up,” Roberts said.

Trump didn’t want to be lassoed.

“While Japan and South Korea would like us to go back into TPP, I don’t like the deal for the United States. Too many contingencies and no way to get out if it doesn’t work,” the president tweeted a few days later.

White House spokeswoman Vanessa Morrone didn't confirm or dispute Roberts' remarks, but pointed to statements by Trump on April 18, where he said: “The media has not covered the TPP correctly. I don’t want to go back into TPP, but if they offered us a deal that I can’t refuse, on behalf of the United States, I would do it. "

Moran said Wednesday that lawmakers are trying to get Trump’s attention. China cheats and misbehaves, Moran said. He contends the solution is not a broad tariff battle but a narrow attack on China instead.

Moran said he’s had Kansans tell him that the president knows what he’s doing on trade agreements. But he cautioned the risks are tremendous.

“There’s a person in this room who told me I’m playing checkers while the president plays chess,” Moran said. “I hope they’re right.”

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman