WASHINGTON — The White House is telling U.S. media that it's weighing a plan to pull out of NAFTA, upping the pressure on Congress to get cracking on negotiations under the threat of having the seminal trade deal obliterated.
Various media say Trump is considering detonating the trade equivalent of a nuclear option: an executive order to withdraw from the trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, a prospect that would terrify industry and business-friendly lawmakers.
Those same reports say Trump hasn't yet decided what to do.
The online site Politico says he's looking at an executive order drafted by aides Steve Bannon and economic assistant Peter Navarro. CNN says he might simply go ahead with renegotiations, as originally planned.
What's not at all clear is whether Trump is seriously considering a pullout, or merely using it as a threat.
The leaks to media appeared to jolt markets. The Canadian dollar lost 0.25 cents by early afternoon, while the Mexican peso got hit harder, down almost two per cent by 1:45 p.m. ET.
One trade expert views it as a negotiating tactic — a threat to Congress.
''I think he is bluffing,'' said Canada-U.S. trade lawyer Mark Warner.
''I think by threatening a nuclear option he is hoping to get Congress to speed up... (and) stop getting in the way. If there is an executive order, it's probably more likely to be weaker than his rhetoric.''
The White House has expressed frustration lately at the go-slow attitude of Congress: it has yet to confirm his trade czar or approve a 90-day notice to start NAFTA talks. The administration says it will be hard to get a deal as the Mexican election approaches.
The Mexican government says it can't conclude a NAFTA deal after the first quarter of next year. Trump's point man on the negotiation, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, has acknowledged that it gets harder if talks linger too much into next year.
Mexico has an election in July 2018. Then there's a five-month lame-duck period in Mexico. And in the midst of all that, U.S. lawmakers will be embroiled in their own midterm elections, complicating the task of trade-related tradeoffs.
By law, Congress must be consulted on negotiations, then vote to ratify a deal.
''It's been frustratingly slow,'' Ross said of Congress earlier this month. ''They’ve been very, very slow on completing the hearings and voting on our new U.S. trade representative Bob Lighthizer. That's been not helpful.''
As for the law related to terminating NAFTA, Trump can do it. He can cancel NAFTA on six months' notice. But the aftermath of that is soaked in uncertainty. There are competing legal views on whether he can cancel the implementing legislation, whereby NAFTA's contents were made law by Congress.
Many of the tariffs eliminated in NAFTA might not revert to pre-1993 levels either. Subsequent global trade negotiations whittled down tariffs at the World Trade Organization. There's also the open question of where the cancellation of the 1993 NAFTA would leave the earlier Canada-U.S. agreement.
Warner predicted two certain results: confusion and litigation.