BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (TNS) — President Donald Trump and the leaders of Canada and Mexico signed a revision of the quarter-century-old North American Free Trade Agreement early Friday, but their ceremony did not disguise the tensions remaining or lessen the doubts of whether a new Congress would approve the pact.
At the event, on the sidelines of an international summit in Buenos Aires, Trump touted the hard-fought deal as "a truly groundbreaking achievement" and proudly held up the signed agreement for the cameras at the conclusion of a short ceremony. With Democrats taking control of the House in January, its passage through Congress remains uncertain, but the president professed confidently that he didn't expect "much of a problem."
Democrats have signaled they won't support the deal without additional protections for workers, though it calls for more safeguards than the agreement it would replace. The revised pact, which comes after a long, difficult negotiation, won't replace NAFTA until it's been approved by the legislatures of all three countries.
"It's been a battle and battles sometimes make great friendships," Trump said, looking to put a positive gloss on his fraught relationship with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
But Trudeau, who considered not attending the ceremony that Trump was so eager for, refused to play along. He opted not to hold up the agreement to showcase the leaders' signatures. Most notably, he refused during his brief remarks to refer to the agreement by the name that the brand-conscious Trump had given it — the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, an acronym Trump says recalls the title of a catchy hit of 40 years ago, "YMCA."
"The new North American Free Trade Agreement maintains stability for Canada's entire economy," Trudeau said, using the name that dates to the early 1990s for the three nations' original accord, which Trump has been intent on repackaging as his own.
"That's why I am here today," Trudeau continued, saying the agreement "lifts the risk of serious economic uncertainty that lingers throughout a trade renegotiation process."
Trump since his campaign had called NAFTA the worst trade deal in history, though much of it is carried over in the new version. The president falsely claimed the new deal was "the largest trade deal ever made" (the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which he withdrew the United States, was larger), and asserted that it will lead to "high wages and higher wages" in the auto industry and bring back jobs that have been moved overseas.
Trump did not refer to General Motors' recently announced plans to cut jobs at five North American factories, four in the United States and one in Canada, but Trudeau did, calling it a "heavy blow." He urged Trump to remove tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, which have been cited as a factor in GM's decision to cut costs.
"Make no mistake, we will stand up for our workers and fight for their families and their communities," he said, before addressing Trump directly. "Donald, it's all the more reason why we need to keep working to remove the tariffs on steel and aluminum between our countries."
Despite Trump's hostile rhetoric about unauthorized immigrants crossing into the United States from Mexico, he appeared to be on better terms with that nation's president, Enrique Pena Nieto, who was serving his final day in office — and, in Trump's view, going out on a high note by signing the trade agreement.
"It really is an incredible way to end a presidency," Trump said. "You don't see that happen very often."
Pena Nieto, who leaves office highly unpopular and whose party's chosen successor was soundly defeated by a leftist challenger in July, said, according to a translator, that the new agreement "aimed to preserve the view of an integrated North America with the firm belief that together we are stronger and more competitive."
Prior to the signing ceremony, Pena Nieto awarded Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and adviser, who was involved throughout the trade talks, the Order of the Aztec Eagle, Mexico's highest award. He pinned a medal to Kushner's jacket as Trump and top administration officials looked on.
Kushner effusively praised Pena Nieto, saying he "put Mexican interests first even when it wasn't popular." Kushner also celebrated what he called "a historic moment" in the relationship between the United States and Mexico.
The events preceded the opening of the first full day of the Group of 20 Summit, an annual gathering of the leaders of the world's most developed nations.
As the G-20 summit began, much attention focused on whether Trump would engage with either Russian President Vladimir Putin, a day after abruptly canceling their scheduled meeting here, or with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose alleged complicity in the murder of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has roiled relations between his country and the United States.
Trump has continued to accept the crown prince's claims of innocence, just as he has accepted Putin's insistence that he did not interfere in the 2016 election — despite, in each case, U.S. intelligence agencies' conclusions to the contrary.
As the many leaders gathered for the traditional "family photo" as the summit began, Trump kept his distance from the two controversial autocrats, who greeted each other with grins and an exaggerated handshake, appearing to revel before the cameras in their shared notoriety.
Trump before long "exchanged pleasantries" with the crown prince, according to a White House official. The president later told reporters that the two men "had no discussion" but that "we might" before the summit concludes Saturday.
Trump continued to insist that he canceled his planned one-on-one meeting with Putin because of Russia's recent seizure of three Ukrainian vessels and their sailors. He called that aggression "the sole reason" for the cancellation, suggesting that his action had nothing to do with new, damaging developments in the special counsel's investigation of possible collusion between Russia and his 2016 presidential campaign.
As Trump left Washington for Argentina on Thursday, his former attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the Trump Organization's business dealings with Russian interests in 2016, and implicated the president.
Somewhat undercutting Trump's claim that Moscow's hostile actions were to blame for the newest tension between the United States and Russia, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave summit reporters a statement blaming the special counsel's probe for straining U.S.-Russia relations.
"The Russian Witch Hunt Hoax, which is hopefully now nearing an end, is doing very well," she said. "Unfortunately, it probably does undermine our relationship with Russia."