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April 3, 2018 10:15 AM, EDT
Trump Pushing for Preliminary NAFTA Deal by Mid-April, Sources Say
President Donald Trump holds hands with the Easter Bunny during the 140th Easter Egg Roll April 2, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

The Trump administration is pushing for a preliminary NAFTA deal to announce at a summit in Peru next week, and will host cabinet ministers in Washington to try to achieve a breakthrough, according to three people familiar with the talks.

The White House wants leaders from Canada and Mexico to join in unveiling the broad outlines of an updated pact at the Summit of the Americas that begins April 13, while technical talks to hammer out the finer details and legal text could continue, according to the sources. They asked not to be identified because the talks are private.

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The Mexican peso trimmed its losses on news of the meetings, rallying from a session low 18.355 per U.S. dollar toward 18.2. Canada’s currency also pared its loss to C$1.2913 per U.S. dollar.

The three nations face a challenge to meet the United States’ goal because major divisions remain, including on the U.S. proposal for more North American content in automobiles. The White House declined to comment on plans to announce an accord for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

On April 3, Trump took to Twitter and reiterated a threat to pull out of NAFTA if Mexico doesn’t stop people and drugs from flowing into the United States from Central America. He also said U.S. aid to foreign nations, such as Honduras, could be at stake.

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“The big Caravan of People from Honduras, now coming across Mexico and heading to our ‘Weak Laws’ Border, had better be stopped before it gets there,” Trump tweeted. “Cash cow NAFTA is in play, as is foreign aid to Honduras and the countries that allow this to happen. Congress MUST ACT NOW!”

America’s eagerness to strike a deal on its biggest trade pact comes as U.S. stocks tumbled, falling in seven of their past 10 trading sessions on concern President Donald Trump’s protectionism could spark a trade war. The White House in the past month has imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, and announced plans to slap duties on Chinese goods over alleged intellectual-property violations.

Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo will travel to Washington for meetings with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on April 4, the sources said. Some meetings also could include U.S. presidential adviser Jared Kushner and Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, who have been managing the relationship between Trump and his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Pena Nieto, according to two of the sources. Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland will arrive April 5 for her meetings with Lighthizer, and meetings April 6 may include all three countries, the sources said.

NAFTA negotiators are working under political calendar pressure, with elections in Mexico in July and the United States in November threatening to complicate the process of reaching a deal and getting it approved by the nations’ lawmakers. Guajardo said last month that negotiations between the countries would need to be concluded before the end of April in order for the agreement to go before the current Mexican Senate and U.S. Congress.

The NAFTA process could become trickier if Democrats take control in the U.S. House or Senate, or if leftist Mexican presidential frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wins or his Morena party picks up seats in the nation’s upper house. Those events probably would change the political calculus for a deal and the content required in a final agreement to win legislative approval. Mexico’s new Senate will be seated in September, with the new president taking office in December. Pena Nieto is limited to a single six-year term.

Negotiators from Mexico and Canada have been expecting an eighth round of NAFTA talks to start in Washington next week, though Lighthizer has pushed back against the idea and hasn’t yet sent an official invitation, according to the sources. He says the three can make the most progress by holding regularly scheduled meetings among smaller groups of negotiators, they said.

“Canada is committed to concluding a modern, mutually beneficial NAFTA as soon as possible,” Freeland spokesman Adam Austen said, while declining to comment on her schedule. Press offices of the Mexican Economy Ministry, Foreign Ministry and USTR declined to comment.

Negotiators this week will try to advance on the most contentious issues, including automotive rules, investment dispute settlement and procurement, while attempting to finish work on less sensitive topics in which there is more consensus, such as telecommunications, digital trade and energy, the sources said.

On April 1, Trump tweeted minutes before arriving at church for an Easter Sunday service that the Mexican government “must stop the big drug and people flows, or I will stop their cash cow, NAFTA. Need Wall!”

Mexico and Canada began renegotiating NAFTA with the U.S. in August at the initiative of Trump, who repeatedly has said the accord led U.S. companies to fire workers and move factories to Mexico.

Trump has promised to negotiate a better deal for America or withdraw. Negotiators have completed work on six chapters, or subject areas, so far, with about 24 in progress.

With assistance by Josh Wingrove, and Jennifer Jacobs