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Going Around Trump, Governors Embark on Their Own Diplomatic Missions

Providence, R.I. — Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, a Democrat, huddled with the leaders of Mexico and Canada in the space of 48 hours this spring, racing to Mexico City from Seattle for back-to-back discussions on climate change and trade.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican, toured Europe last month to deliver what he called a “reassuring” message to business leaders, declaring that Americans would not “retreat” from international commerce.

And Gov. Pete Ricketts, Republican of Nebraska, recently announced he would visit Canada this summer with a message of thanks — for the North American Free Trade Agreement, a pact that President Trump has harshly criticized and says he intends to renegotiate.

In ordinary times, most American governors tend to avoid international exploits, boasting of their consuming interest in balancing budgets and operating the machinery of state government. When they venture abroad, it is mainly to hawk products manufactured in their states.

But under the Trump administration, that has begun to change: Leadership at the state level has taken on an increasingly global dimension, as governors assert themselves in areas where they view Mr. Trump as abandoning the typical priorities of the federal government. They have forged partnerships across state and party lines to offset Trump administration policies they see as harmful to their constituencies.

Unsettled by the president’s skepticism of foreign trade, governors have made newly pointed appeals to international businesses and consumers, at times gently rebuking the White House for presenting an inhospitable face to the world.

After Mr. Trump rejected the Paris climate agreement, a dozen governors announced a state-level coalition to carry out the pact in a partial form, with Gov. Jerry Brown of California, a Democrat, taking a leading role and traveling to China for a meeting on climate with President Xi Jinping.

Mr. Hutchinson, who did not join the climate alliance, said Mr. Trump’s posture on trade had worried traditional United States partners. He credited the president with having “strengthened our negotiating position,” but said gestures of comity were also important.

“I do take advantage of the opportunity to reassure the European audiences, but also the Asian audiences, that global trade cannot be diminished,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “It’s part of the fabric of our global commerce, and I want to continue to be a voice for it.”

The turning outward of American governors was on prominent display at the National Governors Association retreat in Providence, R.I., last week. There, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada spoke on Friday, the first foreign leader to address the group. Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, a Democrat who is chairman of the governors association, said representatives were present from a number of other countries, including China, Japan, Mexico and Vietnam.

In addition, aides to a number of governors, including Mr. Brown and Mr. Inslee, conferred privately to plan for a climate conference in Bonn, Germany. Mr. Trudeau framed his remarks to the group as a tribute to the relationship between the United States and Canada, highlighting shared goals on climate and national security, and urging governors not to support a “race to the bottom” in the form of trade protectionism. Using the same favorable adjectives most American governors apply to themselves, Mr. Trudeau hailed them for pursuing economic prosperity with a “pragmatic approach that crosses party lines.”

“Whether Republican or Democrat, in this economy, that’s likely your very first priority,” he said. “Guess what: It’s my first priority as well.”

The Canadian leader’s friendship mission followed months of stepped-up contact between American governors and Canadian political and business leaders after Mr. Trump’s election.

Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont, who has made multiple trips across the Canadian border since his election in November, said he had made it a priority to put the state’s longstanding economic partner at ease.

Mr. Scott, who is one of two Republican governors to join the climate initiative, along with Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, said that in Canada there had been a mood of “concern, especially initially, about this new administration.”

“They needed some reassurance that we were there fighting on their behalf, and on our behalf as well,” Mr. Scott said. “We wanted to make sure that we communicated that and gave them, the Canadians, reassurance that we’re there for them.”

Mr. McAuliffe said he had recently returned from a seven-country swing through Europe, where at every turn leaders battered him with questions about Mr. Trump’s policies on trade and immigration.

“What I try to tell everybody is, ‘Forget the federal government. Come directly to the states,’” Mr. McAuliffe said, adding that in meetings abroad, “I’ve got to spend the first 30 minutes defending America: ‘No, we’re all about business. No, we want to trade with you.’”

The reassurance campaign has worked both ways: With an eye toward the Nafta talks, both Mr. Trudeau and Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera of Mexico City, who heads a coalition of governors from Mexico, peppered state leaders in Providence with information about the value of trade in their states.

But American governors have appeared to need little convincing, and Democrats and Republicans said in interviews that they had already been intensifying their international outreach to mitigate what they view as retrenchment in Washington.


The New York Times

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