Trump expresses regret about escalating China trade war, then reverses course and says he wishes he raised tariffs higher

President Trump conceded regret Sunday morning about his escalating trade war with China before reversing course in the afternoon and saying he only wished he had raised the tariffs higher.

It was a head-spinning about-face after the president evinced rare second thoughts on a key issue, even as White House officials said his comments had been “misinterpreted.”

“The president was asked if he had ‘any second thought on escalating the trade war with China.’ His answer has been greatly misinterpreted. President Trump responded in the affirmative — because he regrets not raising the tariffs higher,” press secretary Stephanie Grisham said.

Trump, who is acutely attuned to media coverage and public perception of his presidency, never apologizes or admits he was wrong — and he prides being seen as “strong” above all, according to current and former administration officials. 

During a breakfast with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the sidelines of the Group of Seven meeting in this picturesque seaside town, a reporter asked Trump whether he had any “second thoughts” about his escalating trade war with China. Trump responded, “Yeah, sure. Why not.”

“Might as well,” he said. “Might as well. I have second thoughts about everything.”

Trump then claimed that talks were going well with China and that he planned to back away from some of his recent threats, such as seeking to force companies to leave China. 

The comments drew immediate international attention because Trump had been so defiant with his unilateral decision to engage in a trade war with China.

The confusing change reflects Trump’s wildly shifting approach to China, which has had a major effect on the U.S. economy and could affect his reelection chances next year. But it was also part of a stark counternarrative Trump offered during the summit, as he presented a different version of private talks than virtually every one else attending. And those differences spilled into public view multiple times at the summit. 

For example, Trump claimed to have not discussed a joint approach to Iran, even though French officials insisted an agreement had been reached between each of the leaders Saturday night. “I haven’t discussed that,” Trump said. “We will do our own outreach, but I can’t stop people from talking. If they want to talk, they can talk.” Trump administration officials have previously criticized the French for talking to Iran.

He quipped to reporters that North Korea hadn’t violated any rules by launching missiles, only to be quickly corrected by Japanese leader Shinzo Abe.

“We’re in the world of missiles, folks, whether you like it or not,” Trump said, adding that he understands how Abe “feels that way.”

 “I’m not happy about it,” he said of North Korea’s launches, but he continued to praise Kim Jong Un. 

He suggested that multiple foreign leaders had told him they agreed that Russia should be readmitted to the G-7, though Europeans have been adamant that Russia should remain ostracized and argued with Trump about it at dinner Saturday. Trump declined to specify who had agreed with him. “I could, but I don’t believe that’s necessary,” he said.

And he said his lunch Saturday with French President Emmanuel Macron was “the best hour and half I’ve ever spent with him.” But while they were having lunch by the sea, Trump administration officials were criticizing Macron and France to U.S. reporters, saying there was too much focus on “niche” issues such as climate change and African development instead of on the global economy.

His shifting views on China were striking, though it is unclear what the vacillations will signify. In recent days, China has slapped new tariffs on U.S. goods, and Trump responded by jacking up tariff rates on more than $500 billion in Chinese products. These actions have rattled investors and stoked fears that a prolonged standoff could lead to a global recession.

[Britain’s Johnson offers rare — yet gentle — jab to Trump on China trade war]

Despite his brief expressions of regret earlier Sunday, Trump showed no willingness to reverse the tariffs. “I think they respect the trade war,” he said of his G-7 allies, who have urged against an escalation. “It has to happen.”

“I think they want to make a deal much more than I do,” Trump said before the breakfast with Johnson. Trump claimed negotiations with China were ongoing, but a few days ago he suggested that Chinese leader Xi Jinping was an “enemy” of the United States.

World Leaders prepare to start a working session on the world economy and trade during the summit in Biarritz, France, on Aug. 25, 2019. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Still, his tactics with China appear to be shifting. On Friday, Trump had said that “I hereby order” U.S. companies to prepare to stop doing business with China, a shocking statement that drew rebuke from U.S. firms. When pressed on whether he actually had the power to make such a directive, Trump cited a 1977 law that — during an emergency — gives the president broad latitude to intervene.

In a reversal, Trump said Sunday that he had no plans to invoke this law, making it appear that he is also backing down from his push for companies to withdraw from China.

“I have no plans right now,” Trump said. “Actually, we’re getting along very well with China right now.”

Former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations, said the White House’s conflicting statements were just the latest in a string of mixed messages.

“Deeply misguided policy and strategy has been joined for some time by dubious negotiating tactics, with promises not kept and threats not carried out on a regular basis,” Summers said in an interview. “We are at a new stage now with very erratic presidential behavior and frequent denials of obvious reality. I know of no U.S. historical precedent.”

Trump did appear sensitive to the growing international anxiety about his showdown with China. He told reporters Sunday morning that so far no foreign leader had challenged him on his approach. Seconds later, Johnson did. 

“Just to register the faint, sheeplike note of our view on the trade war,” the British prime minister said, “we’re in favor of trade peace on the whole … We think that, on the whole, the U.K. has profited massively in the last 200 years from free trade.”

Other world leaders, including European Council President Donald Tusk, have repeatedly urged a de-escalation of the trade tiffs.

Britain has long been a free-trade superpower, and British diplomats complain as bitterly as their French and German peers about Trump’s tactics on China. But Johnson, who is mired in negotiations to pull his country out of the European Union, desperately wants a trade deal with Trump to bolster his prospects at home.

It was a rare moment of a foreign leader challenging Trump’s tactics while sitting across the table from the U.S. president, delivered in the gentlest of forms.

[G-7 leaders hope for productive — and quiet — summit amid worries Trump will disrupt the gathering]

Later in the day Trump sought to highlight a positive development on trade, holding an unscheduled appearance with Abe to announce that the United States and Japan reached an agreement in principle on a trade deal covering agriculture, technology and other issues. No details were provided.

Trump indicated that he would sign the agreement at the United Nations General Assembly in New York next month.

At their first joint meeting — a dinner of regional Basque specialties — G-7 leaders had “constructive discussions” about Amazonian deforestation and Iran, according to a senior European official. But the conversation turned “rough and tumble” when Trump interrupted the Iran discussion to tell fellow leaders that it didn’t make sense to have the conversation without Russia at the table, a second European official said.

Russia was kicked out in 2014 after it invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.

Other G-7 leaders have been deeply opposed to Trump’s effort to bring Russian President Vladimir Putin back to the table, saying it would reward bad behavior and give a green light to the annexation and ongoing war in eastern Ukraine.

The Europeans said they believe the G-7 should give big liberal democracies a chance to talk to one another. 

“That’s clearly not a very important point to him,” one of the officials said. “He doesn’t share that view. His argument was that on a number of these issues — Iran, Syria, North Korea — it only makes sense to have a discussion with President Putin.” 

Over dinner, Trump spent some time bashing former president Barack Obama about the decision to kick out Russia, repeating his public statements that Putin had been kicked out only because he outsmarted Obama, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

President Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrive for a meeting during the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France, on Aug. 25, 2019. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

In a clear sign that the differences were not resolved during the dinner, Trump told reporters on Sunday that it was “certainly possible” that he would invite Putin to the G-7 next year. The G-7 in 2020 is set to be held in the United States, giving Trump more power to decide who is invited.

On Sunday, leaders shook off the tensions and tried to move on.

“You did very well there last night. My God, that was a difficult one,” Johnson told Macron on Sunday ahead of one meeting, pumping his fist.

“Bien joué,” the British leader said, using the French phrase for “well-played.”

[Amid trade war, Trump drops pretense of friendship with China’s Xi Jinping, calls him an ‘enemy’]

Aides say Trump was hoping to refocus discussions on the economy and could even skip some of the sessions Macron has planned.

Trump has at times boasted that the U.S. economy is performing much better than other countries, and he has said there is a global recession that is harming most of the major nations except for the United States. Other leaders have countered that Trump’s trade war is causing global supply chains to seize up, and there is evidence the U.S. economy is slowing much more quickly than anticipated. 

Just in the past week, Trump has swung dramatically in his approach to the economy, saying he is contemplating tax cuts, then saying tax cuts aren’t needed, and then on Saturday saying he planned to pursue tax cuts in 2021. 

Trump’s attempt to create a sort of alternative version of the summit came as other world leaders, in public statements, described the global dynamic as being in a state of crisis. 

The G-7 consists of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada. The gatherings are typically capped off with a joint statement, known as a communique, that is meant to reflect the leaders’ shared values and goals.

Early Sunday morning, Trump remarked on his initial meetings at the summit by saying “Progress being made!” He spent considerable time attacking the news media — one of his most frequent activities whether he is home or abroad. 

“Such False and Inaccurate reporting thus far on the G-7. The Fake News knows this but they can’t help themselves!” Trump wrote.

It wasn’t immediately clear what his concerns were, and White House officials did not respond to a request for comment. 

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