In Sudden Switch, Hillary Clinton Opposes Trans-Pacific Partnership

Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that she is likely to oppose the Pacific trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration, a notable departure from the White House on one of the president’s top foreign policy initiatives.

Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president, staked out her position against the deal under increasing pressure from organized labor to join unions in their opposition. Battling the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as the pending agreement is known, has been a top priority for progressives.

“Based on what I know so far, I can’t support this agreement,” Clinton said in a statement.

Although Clinton hedged her opposition to the deal, her comments are likely unwelcome at the White House amid its aggressive push to finalize it. Clinton’s opposition represents her biggest break yet with the White House. It follows several other policy announcements she has made in recent weeks that put her at odds with the administration in which she served as secretary of State, and which she has been reluctant to criticize.

She earlier complicated matters for the White House by unequivocally opposing the Keystone pipeline, plunging into a debate she had pledged to sit out until the administration decided whether to approve the project, which would transport oil from Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries. She said she had not expected the decision to take so long and voters deserved to know where she stood.

Clinton also announced that she would push for a key change to Obamacare, eliminating the so-called Cadillac tax on costly health insurance plans. The tax cut has been high on the agenda of teachers’ and other unions, whose members face paying the tax, at a time when Clinton has worked to secure their endorsement. Clinton is also pushing for a no-fly zone in Syria, which Obama does not support.

The Clinton campaign alerted the White House of her position before making the announcement, according to an administration official who declined to comment further on what was described as a private conversation.

“The politics of the trade issue, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle, are really tough,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said earlier Wednesday. “There is a vigorous disagreement inside the Democratic Party about the wisdom of the approach that the president makes.”

Clinton rival Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, has used his early opposition to the Pacific trade agreement in building a formidable coalition of support.

“As someone who voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Central American Free Trade Agreement and Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China and who has helped lead the effort against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I am glad that Secretary Clinton has now come on board,” Sanders said in a statement.

Another of Clinton’s opponents quickly accused her of lacking political courage after she revealed her concerns about the trade deal Wednesday ahead of the first Democratic debate next week in Las Vegas.

“That’s a reversal!” former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a longtime opponent of the trade deal, said in a statement. “Secretary Clinton can justify her own reversal of opinion on this, but I didn’t have one opinion eight months ago and switch that opinion on the eve of debates.”

Clinton had indeed spoken out dozens of times over the years about the promise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying it created opportunities to build relationships, increase cooperation and strengthen national security. But she was always careful to say that the deal needed to be negotiated properly. Trade talks are conducted in secret and after Clinton resigned as secretary of State, she was no longer part of the process.

“I still believe in the goal of a strong and fair trade agreement in the Pacific as part of a broader strategy both at home and abroad, just as I did when I was secretary of State,” Clinton said in her statement.

“But the bar here is very high and, based on what I have seen, I don’t believe this agreement has met it.” She said she is not confident the deal would create jobs, raise wages or strengthen national security.

Clinton said that too many earlier trade deals have fallen short and lawmakers need to be more skeptical on future agreements.

“The risks are too high that, despite our best efforts, they will end up doing more harm than good for hardworking American families whose paychecks have barely budged in years,” her statement said.

Clinton would have limited authority to unravel the deal if Obama manages to get it in place and she succeeds him in the White House. But there are likely provisions that would allow her to slow the pace at which it is implemented and, depending on how the deal unfolds, possibly preclude countries from participating.

Although many progressives loudly oppose the deal, mainstream Democrats do not necessarily share their views.

In a poll in May by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, 58% of Democrats said “free trade agreements have been a good thing for the US,” as opposed to 33% who said they have been a bad thing. Among Republicans, 53% said trade agreements had been good versus 35% who said they had been bad.

Clinton, who has been a champion of other such agreements, reflected in an interview with “PBS NewsHour” on Wednesday on how they have not always had the intended effect.

“We’ve learned a lot about trade agreements in the past years,” she said. “Sometimes they look great on paper. I know when President Obama came into office, he inherited a trade agreement with South Korea. I, along with other members of the Cabinet, pushed hard to get a better agreement. We made improvements. Now, looking back on it, it doesn’t have the results we thought it would have.”

Times staff writers David Lauter, Don Lee and Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.