WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Friday a report by the Axios news website, that cited sources as saying President Donald Trump wanted the United States to withdraw from the World Trade Organization, was wrong.
“There’s no breaking news here … it’s not right,” Mnuchin told Fox Business Network, calling the report “fake news.”
Axios reported earlier on Friday, citing people who were involved in discussions with the president, that Trump frequently told advisers he wanted the United States to quit the WTO, a move with potentially disastrous implications for global commerce.
“This is an exaggeration,” Mnuchin said. “The president has been clear, with us and with others, he has concerns about the WTO, he thinks there’s aspects of it that are not fair, he thinks that China and others have used it to their own advantage, but we are focused on free trade. That’s what we’re focused on – breaking down barriers.”
U.S. stocks wobbled briefly in premarket trading after the Axios report, but regained their footing following Mnuchin’s comments.
One person who has discussed the subject with Trump, according to Axios, said the president frequently told advisers: “I don’t know why we’re in it. The WTO is designed by the rest of the world to screw the United States.”
A source familiar with Trump’s thinking told Reuters he has said privately that the U.S. should get out of the WTO but that it was not a serious proposal.
“He’s frustrated with it and doesn’t love it but it’s not like we’re doing some formal process to withdraw. He thinks they impede good trade deals and make trading more complicated,” the source said.
A December 1994 statute approving the creation of the WTO requires explicit approval from both U.S. chambers of Congress for the country to withdraw from the agreement, an extremely high barrier to such a move.
The 164-member WTO is the only international organization that deals with the rules of trade between countries and states its key purpose as opening trade “for the benefit of all.”
In Geneva, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said no one from the U.S. government had indicated to officials “in the Secretariat that they have any intention of leaving the organization.”
The White House press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and neither did the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.
The USTR has launched a WTO challenge against China’s technology licensing practices, arguing that they ignore market principles and violate WTO rules. The challenge is part of Trump’s “Section 301” tariff efforts to pressure China to change its intellectual property practices and industrial policies.
Last Friday, the United States told the Geneva-based WTO that appeals rulings in trade disputes could be vetoed if they took longer than the allowed 90 days.
The statement by U.S. Ambassador Dennis Shea threatened to erode a key element of trade enforcement at the 23-year-old WTO: binding dispute settlement, widely seen as a major bulwark against protectionism.
It came as Trump, who has railed against the WTO judges in the past, threatened to levy a 20 percent import tax on European Union cars, the latest in an unprecedented campaign of threats and tariffs to punish U.S. trading partners.
Mnuchin was asked earlier on Friday if new trade tariffs the United States has imposed or threatened might wipe out gains from major tax cuts passed into law six months ago.
“I can assure you that we are not going to do anything that wipes out all those benefits or does anything that has a significant risk on growth,” he told Fox Business Network.
(Reporting by Tom Miles in GENEVA and David Lawder, Steve Holland, Patricia Zengerle, Eric Walsh and Doina Chiacu in WASHINGTON; Editing by Bernadette Baum)