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Will State Of The Union Speech Answer Where Trump's Trade Policies Stand?


Next month, the United States, Canada and Mexico hold a seventh round of talks aimed at reshaping the North American Free Trade Agreement. As the latest round wrapped up in Canada yesterday, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said there's been progress, but more work is needed. President Trump will almost certainly discuss trade in his State of the Union address tonight. He has yet to take the kinds of drastic actions he promised when campaigning. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: President Trump told reporters yesterday that U.S. trade relations would be one of the big topics he'll address in tonight's State of the Union address.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The world has taken advantage of us on trade for many years, and as you probably noticed, we're stopping that. We're stopping it cold, and we have to. We have to have reciprocal trade. It's not a one-way deal anymore.

ZARROLI: But it remains to be seen what new policies, if any, he will unveil. The president came to office promising major changes in trade policy. He called NAFTA maybe the worst trade deal ever signed anywhere. He said he was willing to impose sweeping tariffs on Chinese imports, and he promised to label China a trade manipulator. But Celeste Drake, trade policy specialist at the AFL-CIO, says Trump has yet to follow through on most of his threats.

CELESTE DRAKE: Certainly the president's rhetoric during the campaign sounded to a lot of folks, you know, very isolationist and very protectionist. We haven't seen that.

ZARROLI: Trump's most significant move was to pull the United States out of the nearly completed trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, although the president said last week he might reconsider the decision. For the most part, however, his moves have been measured. His administration has initiated investigations into whether steel and aluminum imports threaten national security. And last week, tariffs were imposed on imports of solar panels and washing machines.

DAN IKENSON: I think he's beginning to learn that some of the measures that he would have impulsively instituted have - carry some pretty significant costs.

ZARROLI: Dan Ikenson of the Cato Institute says Trump has had to realize that many of the actions he's threatened would have unintended consequences.

IKENSON: He's learning - he's hearing from other advisers that, look, you can do this; you can pull out of NAFTA, but it's going to kill our agricultural sector, and it's going to kill our auto sector because we rely on these integrated supply chains in order to produce - to compete with Asians and Europeans.

ZARROLI: Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to import more than it exports. Lori Wallach heads Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.

LORI WALLACH: Hundreds of jobs have been off - outsourced. The trade deficit with Mexico and with Canada and with China is up.

ZARROLI: For that reason, Wallach says, Trump will be under some pressure tonight to deliver something for his base.

WALLACH: This State of the Union is a little bit of a hot seat for Trump on trade.

ZARROLI: A lot of people voted for Trump because of his larger message - that global trade was somehow rigged against the United States - and they will be watching tonight to see whether he can deliver on his promises. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "PAUSED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.