Nominees for positions at the office of the United States Trade Representative told the Senate Finance Committee that NAFTA should be improved rather than eliminated.
"I think that the first thing we have to do is work to preserve NAFTA," said Gregory Doud, who has been nominated to be chief of agricultural negotiation at the USTR, in response to a question about how to preserve existing trade agreements and bring U.S. goods to more markets.
President Donald Trump's comments on the trade agreement have ranged from calling for renegotiating the Clinton-era deal to suggesting it be eliminated altogether.
Doud also told Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., that "it's hard to overstate the importance of NAFTA to U.S. agriculture," explaining that Mexico ranks among largest markets for U.S. goods, along with China.
Jeffrey Gerrish, the Trump administration's nominee for deputy U.S. trade representative, echoed those sentiments. "I take the Hippocratic oath and agree to do no harm where we have benefited under these agreements," Gerrish told the panel.
Under questioning from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., Doud said there are areas for improvement in NAFTA and that the U.S. must be proactive when it comes to Asian markets.
"We also have to play offense, and I think at the top of that list is Japan," Doud said. "I think, for agriculture, in particular on the meat side, we're growing, and we're growing very, very rapidly and that Southeast Asian part of the world is the best opportunity we have to sell those products, so we've got to maintain what we have but we've got to grow and another place where I think there's a lot of work to be done.
"It's going to be difficult, but it's China. And that's a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, slog it out," he said.
Roberts stressed the connection between trade policy and national security, stating, "if you plant the American flag on trade you also plant the American flag in a position where we can certainly be in a better position with regards to our national security. It sends a signal to our trading partners but it also sends a signal to our adversaries."
Doud took a different approach, telling the committee "if we can keep the world fed, they're going to stay a lot calmer."
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., asked Gerrish if he intended to recommend that his boss — Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer — and the president follow through on Trump's campaign promises to pressure China through trade measures to act on threats from North Korea.
Gerrish said he believes the U.S. should take strong enforcement measures against China "where appropriate."
"There are a number of issues we have with China," Gerrish said. "It is going to be important for us, if I am confirmed, to get in there and assess all of the different issues, and for us to use all the tools available to us under U.S. law and under the WTO agreements to be able to take strong action against China."