On April 29, 2017, his 100th day in office, President Trump announced an executive order directing the U.S. trade representative (USTR) and secretary of the Department of Commerce to commence a review of “all bilateral, plurilateral, and multilateral trade agreements and investment agreements to which the United States is a party” and “all trade relations with countries governed by the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) with which the United States does not have free trade agreements but with which the United States runs significant trade deficits in goods.” In a press briefing, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross clarified that this executive order differs from others previously signed by the president in that it will focus “more narrowly on the agreements themselves,” even those that do not result in deficits, and not on the behavior of individual countries.
The review of each agreement must be submitted to the president within 180 days (late October 2017) and identify violations or abuses of any U.S. trade agreement, including the WTO, as well as any trade preference programs and investment agreements. The review will identify trade agreements and programs that “have failed with regard to such factors as predicted new jobs created, favorable effects on the trade balance, expanded market access, lowered trade barriers, or increased United States exports.”
In signing the executive order, Trump has authorized the secretary of Commerce, the USTR and other heads of executive departments and agencies to “take every appropriate and lawful action to address violations of trade law, abuses of trade law, or instances of unfair treatment.”
While Ross made clear that the review would cover all trade agreements, the United States has only 20 such agreements and much U.S. trade occurs with countries who are members of the WTO. He stated that the WTO has “a ‘most favored nation clause,’ meaning that of all the countries with whom we do not have a free-trade agreement, we must charge the same tariff on the same item to those – each of those countries as we charge to the others. So that’s a significant impediment toward getting to anything like a reciprocal agreement.” He also criticized the WTO agreement for not effectively dealing with non-tariff trade barriers and intellectual property rights, as well as claiming there were certain structural problems with the agreement, especially the dispute settlement provisions. When asked if the United States would consider withdrawing from the WTO, Ross replied that, while the review has not yet begun, “as [with] any multilateral organization, there’s always the potential for modifying the rules of it.”