Trump to explore entering Pacific trade pact he once called 'a disaster'

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rips Dems' demands, impeachment talk: 'Witch Hunt continues!' Nevada Senate passes bill that would give Electoral College votes to winner of national popular vote The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push MORE on Thursday instructed top administration officials to explore re-entering the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a trade pact he pulled the U.S. out of last year while calling it a “disaster.”

Speaking after a trade meeting with Trump, Republican senators said the president told White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and U.S. Trade Representative Robert LighthizerRobert (Bob) Emmet LighthizerChinese, US negotiators fine-tuning details of trade agreement: report The Trump economy keeps roaring ahead Trump says no discussion of extending deadline in Chinese trade talks MORE to look into joining the deal, which 11 other Pacific Rim nations signed in March. 

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“The president multiple times reaffirmed in general to all of us and looked right at Larry Kudlow and said, ‘Larry, go get it done,' " Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget Senate Republicans running away from Alabama abortion law Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order to protect US networks from Chinese tech | Huawei downplays order | Trump declines to join effort against online extremism | Facebook restricts livestreaming | FCC proposes new tool against robocalls MORE (R-Neb.), a vocal proponent of free trade, told reporters at the White House. 

Sasse cautioned that Trump “is a guy who likes to blue-sky a lot and entertain a lot of different ideas,” suggesting the president could eventually change his mind.

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said the president would only re-enter TPP if the deal was made "substantially" better.

"He has asked Amb. Lighthizer and Director Kudlow to take another look at whether or not a better deal could be negotiated,” she said in a statement. 

If the U.S. were to re-enter the TPP, it would be a remarkable about-face for Trump, who repeatedly blasted the trade pact during his 2016 presidential campaign.

During the 2016 race, Trump called the TPP a “disaster” that is backed by “special interests who want to rape our country.”

His decision to pull out of the agreement, one of his first moves as president, was blasted by Republicans who said it put the U.S. at a disadvantage to China on the global stage.

In late February, 25 Senate Republicans wrote a letter to Trump calling on him to rejoin the agreement, arguing it would broadly boost the U.S. economy.

Trump told lawmakers he now believes the TPP “might be easier for us to join now” because the 11 other nations are close to finalizing a deal without the United States, according to the Nebraska senator.

In early March, the 11 other nations signed the renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership in Chile after spending the better part of the last year reworking the deal.

Trump's instructions come at a time when he is engaged in a roiling trade dispute with China and is pushing to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, who are also parties to the TPP.

Before former President Obama left office, advocates for the sweeping Pacific Rim deal argued that the agreement was important for the United States because it would anchor the nation in the rapidly growing Pacific region while providing a buffer against China. 

Trump, earlier this year, opened the door to re-entering the trade deal if the terms were more favorable for the United States.

“I would do TPP if we were able to make a substantially better deal,” Trump told CNBC during an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Trump called the Pacific Rim trade pact a “horrible deal” as written. 

Besides Canada and Mexico, the members of the pact are Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Updated at 4:43 p.m.