President Donald Trump pulled America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Monday, abandoning the trade deal he spent much of the presidential campaign deriding.
Longtime TPP critics like Bernie Sanders applauded the move. But, surprisingly, the decision was also praised by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan — one of the congressional leaders who had been most willing to support President Barack Obama’s controversial trade deal.
“President Trump is wasting no time acting on his promises … He has followed through on his promise to insist on better trade agreements,” Ryan said in a statement lauding Trump’s decision on Monday. “We look forward to working with the president to build on these actions and deliver results for the people."
As critics were quick to point out, Ryan’s new position certainly appears at odds with his old one. Ryan’s website, for instance, still says approving the international trade deal is one of his top five priorities. This summer, Ryan extolled the importance of conservative free market principles in a speech widely viewed as a rebuke to Trump’s skepticism of global trade deals. Last year, the speaker led the charge for Congress to approve the TPA, which gave Obama broader authority to negotiate with the Pacific Rim countries. (As his spokesperson points out, Ryan had raised specific objections with some aspects of the TPP trade deal, but hadn’t argued for jettisoning the entire package.)
“I just think it would be a big mistake for our country if we were to fail to do this,” Ryan told Politico at the time. “Trade is very important; it’s about time that this administration gets around to it. Forget our party. This is important for our country.”
Will congressional Republicans stand up to Trump?
Now, in terms of practical consequences for actual policy, Ryan’s backflip on the TPP won’t have much of an impact.
The TPP has long been dead. House and Senate Democrats turned on it overwhelmingly over the course of the campaign, making it politically toxic. Even Hillary Clinton, who once praised it, later firmly turned against TPP on the campaign trail. Trump seemed likely to kill it once in office — with or without Ryan’s support.
What’s more important to note is not what Ryan’s decision means for the TPP itself, but what it suggests for how he and other congressional Republicans are hoping to work with Trump.
On Monday, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch also downplayed any real difference on TPP between the Republicans in congress and Trump. Hatch argued that Trump’s real aim was to change the TPP so it was negotiated on a “bilateral basis” (between the US and one other country at a time), but that his decision didn’t reflect a deeper philosophical divide within the party over what the individual deals should look like.
“All the president is saying is that he wants to look at it on a bilateral basis, and I'm prepared to go ahead on the bilateral basis,” Hatch told me in an interview. “I think it would be easier for him if he'd modify TPP — which concerns 11 nations plus ours — but if we have to do them individually, that's fine with me.”
Similarly, other Republican members of congress who had backed TPP aren’t slamming Trump for appearing to kill the trade pact. Kevin Brady, of Texas, who had extolled TPP as recently as November 2016, released a statement on Monday expressing faith Trump would “build on the work that has been done.”
“I believe the TPP agreement contains considerable benefits for the U.S. economy — but it fell short in other ways,” said Republican Ways and Means Committee chair . “It's important that America not abandon the Asia-Pacific region because American companies and workers will lose out.”
Republicans in congress need Trump to sign their legislation. Not picking a fight with Trump for pulling out of the TPP — given that the measure was probably dead anyway — is an easy way for them to try to win goodwill with the new president, even if it opens him up to accusations of hypocrisy.