Arizona Republican Sen. Flake highlighting NAFTA positives

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Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake on Wednesday launched an effort to save the North American Free Trade Agreement even as President Donald Trump begins a renegotiation he promised during his election campaign.

The Arizona Republican said in an interview that the agreement known as NAFTA has been a huge boon to Arizona and the U.S. and that "any honest accounting" of the 23-year-old agreement shows that it's been "good for everybody." He said that's especially true in Arizona, where a boost in cross-border trade has increased jobs and economic growth. He said he's worried that an overhaul could essentially gut the positive effect of the trade deal.

The president campaigned on negotiating a new NAFTA deal with Canada and Mexico and called the current agreement "a disaster." Aides signaled a potential pull out in April but Trump changed course and started the formal renegotiation process in mid-May.

Flake said he doesn't know what the president has in mind but could be supportive under the right circumstances.

"If he's modernizing it, great, more power to him," Flake said. "I think any honest accounting of NAFTA would show that it's been good for everybody. Certainly good for Arizona's economy, good for the United States economy. When trade has gone from under $60 billion a year to over $600 billion a year, what's not to like?"

The trade agreement has drawn criticism since it was being negotiated in the early 1990s, with some warning it would result in U.S. factory jobs moving to Mexico. The deal triggered a big boost in trade among the three counties when it went into effect in 1994, with farmers especially benefiting, but factory jobs did move south.

Flake hopes to gather success stories from Arizonans to help ensure any new agreement continues to spur job creation and growth. The effort is prompted in part by concerns that Trump will abandon the agreement.

"In the campaign many times it was 'we're going to rip it up - it was the worst trade deal ever negotiated,'" Flake said. "There's a lot of rhetoric that was tough."

There are other implications to pulling out of the deal, Flake said. They including influencing Mexican voters to move toward a populist president of their own, and putting pressure on migration by cutting employment in Mexico.

"For us, obviously if Mexico's economy is better that's less pressure on the border," Flake said. "The net of Mexican migrants is south rather than north. We have security arrangements that are better than they were, the Mexican economy is doing better, better rule of law, criminal justice reform is moving ahead that we worked with them on.

"A lot of good things that we can point to, that if our trade relationship goes south, or sour I should say, then those things are in jeopardy," he said.

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