Mexican President Pena Nieto unleashed a real surprise this week when he offered to meet with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. It was a potentially wise change-of-heart for the Mexican leader. Nieto has previously said some unpleasant things about Trump, but he now seems willing to acknowledge Trump as the official GOP standard bearer. A Trump-Pena Nieto meeting, which could be totally private -- with no press allowed, to prevent grandstanding by either side -- might hand Trump a terrific (and possibly game-changing) opportunity to demonstrate statesmanship while boosting his standing among Latinos and other voters. Additionally, there are also surprising reasons why it would behoove Pena Nieto to forge more positive relations with his potential counterpart.
Issues such as immigration, drugs, and perhaps most important, trade, have been in the forefront of the Trump campaign's agenda. If Trump were to win in November, Mexico could face a quick and perhaps unexpected shift in trade relations with the United States. That's because a President Trump could utilize under-appreciated executive privileges to significantly alter trade relations between the two countries.
Here's the crux of it: As president, Trump could give six months notice under a current NAFTA provision to withdraw from the agreement. Additionally, under the authority granted in last year's Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation, he could negotiate new trade agreements as he saw fit -- without first turning to Congress for permission. Given these executive prerogatives, it might be very beneficial for Pena Nieto to open a dialogue with Trump now regarding trade and other issues.
The irony of the situation is that, when the Republican-controlled Congress passed Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) last year, it never contemplated a "fair trade" Republican (or Democrat, like Bernie Sanders) becoming president. Likewise, it never envisioned that this new chief executive might choose to renegotiate all of America's trade deals. Instead, Congressional free traders simply assumed that "the system" was sufficiently rigged to assure another free trade president -- one who would pliantly expand trade deals using the flawed NAFTA template, and take the usual marching orders from the Wall Street-multinational elite. Thus Congress unwittingly created a "trade doomsday mechanism" that Trump could employ in a direction they surely hadn't anticipated.
Trump should take full advantage of the TPA authority that will be at his disposal and make the case directly to the American people as to how he will rebalance trade -- and make it work for the benefit of America's manufacturers and working people. It's a case he can make succinctly and eloquently: As president, he has the authority to reshape trade; he's going to use the NAFTA provision and the TPA authority that Congress passed last year; and, per the TPA law, Congress will be allowed only an up-or-down vote on trade deals he submits. It's going to be quite interesting to see if Congress listens to the American people, instead of the one-percent elite, and passes these new "America First" trade deals.
It's clear that Pena Nieto also has much to gain from such a meeting -- in part because he should realize that executive trade authority in the possession of Donald Trump is a hand he can't beat. Cooperation, not confrontation, is the way to move forward.
Trump is facing a tough election. Some of his top issues -- immigration, drug cartels, one-sided trade deals -- involve Mexico. A positive meeting with the Mexican president should improve his standing on multiple levels with U.S. voters. And if he is truly a consummate dealmaker, then a face-to-face meeting with America's southern neighbor gives him a real opportunity to start forging a reasonable, responsible path forward on one of the nation's thorniest trade challenges.
Kevin L. Kearns is president of the U.S. Business & Industry Council, a national business organization advocating for domestic U.S. manufacturers since 1933.