WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump says American farmers are big fans of the trade deal his administration has negotiated as a replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Finalizing the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement, or USMCA, was among the trade priorities Trump outlined during this week’s State of the Union address.

“The farmers love the USMCA,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday. “I think NAFTA’s a disaster. I’ve always said NAFTA’s a disaster. Our country had a surplus with Mexico until NAFTA came along. Now we lose a hundred billion dollars a year between Mexico and Canada under NAFTA. We lose a hundred billion dollars a year. That doesn’t include drugs coming in, which probably triples that number or more. No, NAFTA’s a disaster.”

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Trump was referring to the trade balance between United States and those countries. The balance with Mexico swung particularly hard in the wake of the agreement. Experts say NAFTA had an overall positive impact on United States gross domestic product, but critics say it has undermined specific industries and paved the way for companies to move operations to Mexico.

Trump’s remarks came during a wide-ranging discussion in the Oval Office with correspondents from regional newspapers, including The World-Herald.

The White House arranged the conversation, some portions of which were off the record, to discuss the president’s 2019 agenda.

NAFTA has long been a target of criticism by Trump, who has talked about simply withdrawing the United States from the agreement if he can’t get a better deal.

“I’m a fan of pre-NAFTA, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said Wednesday, in response to a question from The World-Herald. “I’m a big fan of pre-NAFTA. But NAFTA’s been very bad to our country. All you have to do is look at 40,000 empty buildings all over the country that, you know, some have been taken up, but a lot of them are still empty, and NAFTA has been a very bad thing for our country and so has the World Trade Organization, been very bad for our country.”

Many farm state lawmakers have urged caution, however, and have highlighted to Trump the benefits NAFTA delivers to farmers and ranchers who rely on the markets of Canada and Mexico to sell their products.

Trump touted the administration’s trade policies during his address to Congress, specifically urging lawmakers to sign off on USMCA as a way of fostering manufacturing jobs, expanding the country’s agricultural production, protecting intellectual property and ensuring that more cars are made in the United States. It remains to be seen whether they will follow his lead.

During the speech, Trump also talked up his use of tariffs in an attempt to force better deals with other countries, particularly China. Back-and-forth tariff battles have contributed to depressed prices for some crops, however.

The Trump administration has tried to offset that hit with subsidy payments to agricultural producers, but farm groups stress that their members prefer to compete in the marketplace rather than take more government subsidies.

Asked about those low crop prices on Wednesday, Trump said “my deal hasn’t kicked in yet” and noted that USMCA still must receive congressional approval. In the end, he suggested, things will turn around.

“Oh, it’s going to be great,” Trump said.

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Reporter - Politics/Washington D.C.

Joseph Morton is The World-Herald Washington Bureau Chief. Morton joined The World-Herald in 1999 and has been reporting from Washington for the newspaper since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @MortonOWH. Email:joseph.morton@owh.com

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