“Today, President Trump fulfilled one of his key promises to the American people,” Mr. Lighthizer said on Thursday. “For years, politicians have called for the renegotiation of this agreement, but President Trump is the first to follow through with that promise.”
The move was met with skepticism by organizations that have long pressed for major changes to Nafta and have argued that Mr. Trump had already fallen short of his promises on trade.
“Donald Trump promised that he’d fix Nafta on his first day in office,” Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, an environmental group, said in a statement. “One hundred and nineteen days later, he has managed to send Congress a two-page letter that fails to include any real plan to fix a deal that has undermined environmental protections, eliminated jobs, undercut wages, polluted our air and water, and fueled climate change.”
The page-long letter stood in stark contrast to an eight-page version circulated on Capitol Hill in March, which proposed adding a provision to allow tariffs to be reinstated if a flood of imports threatened to harm a domestic industry. It also said the Trump administration would seek to adjust the agreement’s rules of origin, which specify how much of a product must be made in a Nafta country.
The notice sent on Thursday instead mentioned repeatedly that any changes would be the result of congressional consultation, and it pledged close coordination and “transparency” with lawmakers throughout the renegotiation process. It laid out the framework for the talks in only the most general of terms. The letter was required under a law that mandates that the president give Congress at least 90 days’ notice before opening a trade negotiation.
“In particular, we note that Nafta was negotiated 25 years ago, and while our economy and businesses have changed considerably over that period, Nafta has not,” Mr. Lighthizer said in the letter.
He noted that “digital trade” had barely begun when the agreement took effect. And new provisions will be needed, he said, to address intellectual property rights, state-owned enterprises, and labor and environmental measures.
“Moreover, establishing effective implementation and aggressive enforcement of the commitments made by our trading partners under our trade agreements is vital to the success of those agreements and should be improved in the context of Nafta,” Mr. Lighthizer said.
Republicans and Democrats welcomed Mr. Trump’s efforts at renegotiating the deal, but many also expressed deep skepticism about the president’s intentions. Republicans warned against a wholesale overhaul of Nafta, and Democrats pressed him to do just that.
“Given that the agreement is more than two decades old, there are areas in which Nafta will benefit from strengthening and modernization,” wrote a group of 18 Republican senators led by Jeff Flake of Arizona and Deb Fischer of Nebraska. “On the other hand, efforts to abandon the agreement or impose unnecessary restrictions on trade with our North American partners will have devastating economic consequences.”
Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, pronounced Mr. Trump’s letter “weak” and suggested he was backing off his fiery language on trade. “The president’s vague Nafta letter is a stark contrast for the aggressive promises he made to hard-working families during the campaign,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “For all of his rhetoric, President Trump looks to be sorely disappointing American workers on trade.”
A coalition of labor and environmental groups said they would press for major changes to Nafta, including eliminating its secretive arbitration tribunals, which allow corporations to seek compensation from foreign governments for laws or regulations they believe hurt their business.
Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said Mr. Trump would have to choose whether to honor his campaign promises of major changes to Nafta — “an agenda that is as appealing to the Republicans in Congress as eating ground glass” — or produce a deal that resembled the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the sweeping trade deal he has scrapped and which she argued would be disastrous for American workers.
“Modest tweaks are not going to stop Nafta’s ongoing damage, much less deliver on Trump’s promises,” Ms. Wallach said.
Mexico’s Economy Ministry released a statement welcoming the announcement. “Mexico reaffirms its willingness to update Nafta to face the challenges of the 21st century,” it said. “The countries of North America deserve a modern instrument to regulate their trade relations.”
Mexican officials have been eager to begin the negotiations with an eye to concluding them before Mexico’s presidential election campaign begins next year.
Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, has repeatedly said that Canada welcomes the opportunity to renegotiate and modernize Nafta. “We are at an important juncture that offers us an opportunity to determine how we can best align Nafta to new realities — and integrate progressive, free and fair approaches to trade and investment,” Chrystia Freeland, the minister of foreign affairs, said Thursday.