President Donald Trump will sign an executive order Friday that is intended to identify the countries the White House considers to be among the top cheaters in trade deals with the U.S., senior administration officials said.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told reporters Thursday night that the executive order will call for a "large-scale report" by the Commerce Department and the US Trade Representative to determine the trade abuses that contribute to the U.S. trade deficit.
It is the first time the federal government has analyzed what it considers to be unfair practices on a country-by-country and product-by-product basis, Ross said. Once the report is finished in 90 days it will be used as a "basis for decision making by the administration," he noted.
That way, the decisions can be "based on hard facts, not theories," the Commerce secretary said, adding that the data will be used in NAFTA negotiations.
Trump was highly critical of North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada during the campaign and frequently cited statistics about falling manufacturing numbers when he stumped around the country.
While Ross said he saw no reason for any country to be "especially alarmed" by the executive order, the move toward aggressive reporting of trade abuses and cheaters could be a stepping stone toward tough negotiations to come.
It's notable, however, that the country cited by Ross as the single largest contributor to the trade deficit is China. When asked if this was a sign that Trump would talk directly to President Xi Jinping — who is meeting with Trump in a week at his Mar-A-Lago club in Florida — about the deficit, Ross said declined to comment.
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National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro told reporters that the executive orders have nothing to do with Trump's meeting with China's leader.
Briefing press minutes after the president sent out cryptic tweets about the coming China negotiation, Navarro said "nothing we're saying tonight is about China. Let's not make this about China."
Other countries with large trade deficits with the U.S., according to Ross, are Japan, Germany, Mexico, Ireland, Vietnam, Italy, South Korea, Malaysia, India, Thailand, France, Switzerland, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Canada. Ross added that this is not to say "that everybody on this little list is an evil doer. That's not the case."
A second executive order that the president will sign Friday is aimed at deterring the dumping of products on the U.S. market.