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Former Sen. Bob Kerrey on Tuesday adamantly defended the Trans-Pacific Partnership, arguing it would have been far easier for the U.S. to handle trade relations with China with the backing of a multinational group.
The Nebraska Democrat said on CNBC's "Squawk Box " the Trump administration's move to leave the Asia-Pacific free trade pact weakened the United States "when you're trying to get China to change their policies."
"[China] has its own set of problems independent of President Trump and independent of tariffs," said Kerrey. "There's no question they need the United States market."
Kerrey said the U.S. is right to put pressure on China but questioned Trump's approach.
In a lively exchange, CNBC's Michelle Caruso-Cabrera argued the U.S. would have withdrawn from TPP even with a Democrat in office.
She reminded Kerrey of images of actress-activist Susan Sarandon, one of the most outspoken supporters of Bernie Sanders, holding up a sign opposing the TPP at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Kerrey quickly responded by saying, "I'm not Susan Sarandon, so I'm not defending Susan Sarandon. I would never defend Susan Sarandon."
"Is Donald Trump saying I'm not going to do anything unless the Democrat party supports it? He made a decision to withdraw from the TPP," said Kerrey, who also served one term as governor of Nebraska and unsuccessfully sought the 1992 Democratic president nomination, which went to Bill Clinton.
Kerrey argued Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton should have supported TPP. Clinton once called TPP the "gold standard." But in 2016, she criticized the deal, saying at one point that it killed jobs and held down U.S. wages.
"You expect a Republican president to support trade," he said. "Hillary would have been in a much stronger position had she not reversed herself on TPP."
Trump fulfilled a campaign promise to withdraw the U.S. from TPP, which had been signed by 11 other countries in 2016.
However, the president said on CNBC in January he would be open to the possibility of the U.S. re-joining if the deal were "substantially" improved.