In this Friday, July 13, 2012, photo, a container ship from China is offloaded at Massport's Conley Terminal in the port of Boston.
In this Friday, July 13, 2012, photo, a container ship from China is offloaded at Massport's Conley Terminal in the port of Boston.

The United States imported more goods than ever last year, boosting the country's merchandise trade deficit with other countries to a record $891.3 billion, despite President Donald Trump's protectionist trade policies aimed at cutting the gap. The overall trade deficit, which includes services, hit $621 billion, the highest since 2008.  

The trade deficit is the difference between what Americans sell to trading partners and what they buy from suppliers overseas. Experts say a large trade deficit can hurt the economy. In December for example, the trade imbalance widened because U.S. imports rose 2.1 percent, while exports to other countries dropped 1.9 percent.

The trade deficit on goods with China, Mexico and the European Union climbed to record highs, despite Trump's imposition of tariffs last year on Chinese products and on foreign aluminum and steel.

Trump administration officials have said the U.S. is nearing a trade deal with China, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cautioned that the president would reject any agreement that is not perfect. "This has to work for America," Pompeo said in a recent interview with the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group. "If it doesn't work, we'll keep banging away at it."

But Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based conservative think tank, disagrees, saying in an interview with VOA it is "highly unlikely that the U.S. will walk away."

Scissors said if the Trump administration had an alternative strategy in the event talks fail, "then it would be more likely that President Trump would walk away." But Scissors added, "there is no such plan."

Wednesday's trade deficit report follows several other weak economic reports this week — including business and construction spending — setting the U.S. economy on a low-growth course in the first quarter.

VOA's Mandarin Service contributed to this report.