Hillary Clinton appeared to take another step away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Thursday, telling reporters that she didn’t work on the controversial trade deal while serving as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state.
The Democratic presidential front-runner, who advocated for a multi-lateral Asia trade agreement as a member of Obama's administration but has pointedly refused to endorse the results as a candidate to succeed her old boss, walked a careful semantic line following a private meeting with the AFL-CIO executive council. Many of the group's members vehemently oppose the proposed trade deal.
“I did not work on TPP,” Clinton said. “That was the responsibility of the United States Trade Representative.” She added: “I never had any direct responsibility for the negotiations at all.”
Clinton so far has refused to say whether she will support or oppose the trade deal. Obama hails it as a jobs creator but many other Democrats, including Clinton's chief challenger for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, decry it as a threat to American workers and their wages.
As America's chief diplomat, Clinton said Thursday, “I advocated for a multi-national agreement that would quote 'be the gold standard.'”
That appeared to be a reference to a 2012 speech in Australia, when the then-secretary of state said that “we need to keep upping our game both bilaterally and with partners across the region through agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership…This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.”
But when a reporter on Thursday tried to pin Clinton down about whether she was endorsing the TPP at the time, she answered, “No, no, no,” and added: “I never had any direct responsibility for the negotiations at all.”
While Clinton herself would not have been personally engaged in the nitty-gritty of hammering out the TPP, the State Department is represented at the table when trade deals are negotiated. Her downplaying of her role appears to contradict the view of at least one of her peers. Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, last month told Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin that Clinton “participated in everything we did in the first term in a meaningful way,” and “was instrumental in formulating and implementing the re-balance to Asia, of which the Trans-Pacific partnership is a part.”
Clinton's latest comments followed a closed-door session AFL-CIO's executive council. One of five presidential candidates who met individually with the council, Clinton said TPP came up several times during her meeting. Outside, she repeated what are now well-rehearsed arguments on what it would take to win her backing for the deal:
“There are three tests that I want to see met: does this protect American workers, does it raise wages and increase economic opportunity and is it in our national security interests,” Clinton told reporters. She said she was hearing that “there have been some changes in a direction that I personally might approve, but I don’t know if there have been enough changes and I won’t know until I actually see what’s been negotiated.” Two people who were in the executive council’s meeting with Clinton told Bloomberg that her public comments echoed what she’d just told the union leaders.
The TPP, which critics say would drive down wages and health and safety standards, has become an awkward issue for Clinton as she courts unions and progressives. This month Larry Cohen, who just retired after a decade heading the Communications Workers of America, announced that candidate Clinton’s lack of leadership on trade had spurred him to endorse and volunteer for Bernie Sanders. “She’s going to have that responsibility the rest of her life, that she didn’t do anything, and watched fast track go through,” Cohen told Bloomberg Monday. “Why would you expect if she’s elected that it would be any better? It would be worse, because she’s in campaign mode now.”
Other union leaders were satisfied with Clinton's trade talk. “I did not find her to be uncertain or elusive,” International Association of Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger told Bloomberg Tuesday. “I thought she was pretty thoughtful. She wasn’t as muscular as some were, but she made it clear her view of the issue.”
(Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for Schaitberger's interview with Bloomberg.)