As efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement kick off this week, Donald Trump will have an opportunity to take action he's been promising since he started his campaign for President-- or again show how his rhetoric is incompatible with the parameters of the office he now occupies.
Top trade officials from the United States, Canada and Mexico will gather in Washington for the first time on Wednesday to begin hashing out potential changes to the more than 25-year-old trade deal. Negotiators will arrive with pages-long wish lists on a variety of items, ranging from rules of origin to dispute mechanisms, digital trade and currency manipulation.
The Trump administration has laid out an ambitious set of goals and timeline for negotiations that render the path forward a tough one to navigate.
There is no doubt that NAFTA, which went into effect in 1994, could use some rejuvenation, said Mickey Kantor, who was United States Trade Representative and Commerce Secretary under the Clinton administration, which negotiated NAFTA. "It's time to update it. A lot has happened since then, including the advent of the internet, the advent of the cloud, artificial intelligence, data transfer, you name it, it's happened."
But the question is whether the Trump administration is entirely equipped to do it.
"In this administration, bombast is the rule of the day," Kantor said. "That's all they do."
Withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has been Trump's most meaningful trade action yet, but that was largely an opportunity lost, not a rollback of rules and practices already baked into countless industries.
The president has repeatedly threatened to act on China, but has yet to take any specific measures. A Commerce Department report on steel imports expected to take aim at China and other countries has been delayed. Trump on Monday ordered an investigation into the country's trade practices, but it is unclear what the result will be.
"They clearly want to do something on China, but China has a lot of leverage, so they have to think about it carefully," said Caroline Freund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Trump's approach to trade thus far into his presidency appears to follow a certain pattern: the White House declares big ambitions, realizes the potential consequences of such ambitions and then, at least to some extent, backs down. Trump has refrained from declaring China a currency manipulator and decided against attempting to quit NAFTA altogether, both of which were moves he threatened to make while campaigning.
"I actually think NAFTA's going to be very similar to what we've seen in these other proposed trade policies in the sense that my understanding is that the U.S. is walking in, tabling text on a dozen or more areas...saying this is what we want. And I think that Canada and Mexico are going to see some problems in that text, and then it's going to be this same kind of circling back and realizing the difficulty," Freund said.
Negotiators have set a tight timeline for revamping a deal that originally took years to put together. Putting pressure on the clock is not just Trump's desire for a win but also an upcoming presidential election in Mexico.
The United States Trade Representative in July laid out a 16-page set of objectives for NAFTA negotiations, for some of which it could gain consensus were negotiators to take aim at more incremental change. Freund pointed to streamlining de minimis thresholds on cross-border shipments, including provisions on currency manipulation, addressing trucks crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and altering rules on softwood lumber as potential areas for agreement among the three countries.
Perhaps ironically, NAFTA negotiators will also be able to draw ideas from the TPP.
"There is probably a lot of room for compromise around a lot of the provisions that were already agreed to by all three countries under the TPP," said Nikia Clarke, executive director at World Trade Center San Diego and member of former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker's U.S. Investment Advisory Council, pointing to intellectual property, digital trade, telecommunications and cross-border data flows. "There's a lot of potential movement there that would be good for all of North America."
A senior administration official in a briefing with press on Tuesday declined to say whether the U.S. would draw from the TPP specifically. "We at the staff level have been instructed to draw on all of the best that is out there," he said.
Many other parts of negotiations won't be so simple.
Canada's foreign minister on Monday suggested the country could walk away from the table if the U.S. pushed to remove the Chapter 19 dispute settlement mechanism. Automakers have voiced resistance to changes in NAFTA's rules of origin.
And if and when the Trump administration is successful of arriving at an agreement, it will face another impediment: getting it through Congress.
"This whole business of renegotiating NAFTA was a campaign pledge in search of a constituency," Scott Miller, a former lobbyist for Procter & Gamble now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Politico.
Wednesday will mark the first of what will likely be several rounds of negotiations on NAFTA to be held in all three countries in the coming months. The deal is currently 22 chapters long and could potentially be extended to 30.
"You look at what can be changed, what all three countries who are all sovereigns agree to," Kantor said. "That doesn't mean you throw out the baby with the bathwater."