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President Donald Trump has told top economic advisors to look at the possibility of re-entering a massive Pacific trade deal, the White House said Thursday.
The president has asked chief economic advisor Larry Kudlow and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to consider trying to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), according to White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters. He wants them to "take another look at whether or not a better deal could be negotiated," she said.
In a tweet on Thursday night, Trump said the U.S. would only join the TPP if the deal were "substantially better."
Earlier, Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said the president told lawmakers about his directive. The senators were among the lawmakers from agricultural states who met with Trump on Thursday about the White House's proposed tariffs on China, which farmers worry would lead to retaliation that hurts their businesses.
After the meeting, Sasse told reporters the 12-nation trade deal agreed to by President Barack Obama and abandoned by Trump would be the "single best way" to counter alleged Chinese trade abuses. Trump has used the threat of tariffs to punish Beijing for alleged intellectual property theft by Chinese companies.
Trump withdrew from the agreement last year as one of his first acts in office.
"That cheating needs to be countered. But the single best way we can counter that is by leading all the rule of law nations in the Pacific who would rather be aligned with the U.S. than be aligned with China," he said.
Still, it may be too late for the U.S. to become part of the TPP again as the other countries have signed on to a new deal.
In March, the 11 remaining nations signed a trade agreement called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. It has not yet been ratified by enough countries to take effect.
Members include Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam. With the original deal, the nations intended in part to counter China's economic influence in the region.
On Thursday, Sasse suggested Trump thinks the U.S. could still join in on the agreement. The president reaffirmed "multiple times" that he believes it may be easier to join the agreement now, the senator said.
Still, he added he does not "speak for" the administration and said the White House may want to negotiate "lots of particulars."
Roberts, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the U.S. rejoining TPP "would be good news all through our farm country."
In January, Trump told CNBC he would join TPP again if he could make a "substantially better deal." He argued the agreement as previously crafted was "terrible."
Trump's proposed tariffs on China prompted Beijing to propose retaliatory tariffs on many American products like soybeans. Trump has said he thinks those measures were meant to specifically target farming states that are an important part of the president's political support.
Trump's tariff moves have put Republican lawmakers from agricultural states in a difficult spot ahead of critical midterm elections in November.