President Donald Trump – irritable and inconsistent on the world stage – raised, dashed and then raised again hopes for an easing of his fast worsening trade war with China that is threatening the global economy.
The G7 summit in France unfolded in the now familiar manner of Trump’s foreign trips. The United States, once the fulcrum of the Western alliance, was isolated. Foreign leaders who once looked to the US for direction largely tried not to antagonize a volatile American President. And Trump battled with the media, reacted furiously to any criticism of his performance and left whip lashed aides scrambling to explain his public comments.
The President’s reversals and recriminations over the weekend recalled a wild day in Washington on Friday when his fury at Beijing’s decision to hit back at his tariff assaults sent stock markets into turmoil and triggered extreme concern about a worsening standoff with China.
At one stunning moment on Sunday, Trump seemed to indicate he regretted his trade duel with China in comments that rocketed around the world amid concern about its economic impact.
“I have second thoughts about everything,” he said, leaving critics to hope the President was trying to make himself political room to deescalate the showdown.
But Trump, who hates to look like he’s being backed into a corner or is climbing down, then sent out his aides to say that on the contrary, his only regret was not being tougher on China.
And then on Monday, during an exchange with reporters, Trump flipped back into a softer position.
Speaking in France, Trump said “China called last night” to relay a desire to return to negotiations. He described the calls as “productive.”
“‘Let’s get back to the table,’ ” Trump said, describing the message from Beijing.
“They want to make a deal. They want calm. That’s a great thing, frankly,” Trump said alongside Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
The episode reflected how much personal credibility the President now has invested in his duel with China — a fact that makes a prompt resolution of the dispute, that has grave political implications in the US, Europe and Beijing, continue to look elusive. The worse the confrontation gets, the more real is the impact for American consumers who face rising prices on goods imported from China. These include clothes and smartphones and other technology that have transformed modern life since the US ushered the rising Asian giant into the world trading system nearly two decades ago.
Despite growing concern outside the US that the trade war could undermine already shaky global growth, the President insisted that he was getting no push back from allies about China at the summit.
“I think they respect the trade war. It has to happen,” he said.
Officials insist they are not “cleaning up” for the President’s remarks
The disarray in administration messaging over China was also evident in the efforts of Trump’s lieutenants on American Sunday political talk shows to smooth the uproar of the last few days.
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Trump’s top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow argued that the President had misheard the question from the press pool whether he was having second thoughts about China.
“Actually what he was intending to say is he always has second thoughts and actually had second thoughts about possibly a higher tariff response to China,” Kudlow said.
Kudlow also insisted that what British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s called a “faint sheep-like” criticism of the tariff war was being taken out of context — even though it was captured on video.
“I was in the room, look, I will just say, it all depends on the context,” Kudlow told CNN’s Brianna Keilar.
Johnson’s remarks — meek though they may have been as the new British Prime Minister knows he needs Trump to reach a post-Brexit trade deal with the US — seemed clear and contradicted Trump’s contention that he won wide support for his trade stance.
“We’re in favor of trade peace on the whole, dialing it down if we can,” Johnson said.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin insisted to reporters in France that he and other officials were not “cleaning up” Trump’s remarks on China.
“I want to be clear, the President – when we saw how this was being reported, the White House put out a statement to make very clear,” Mnuchin said.
The spectacle was a familiar one though. Repeatedly during Trump’s presidency, officials have appeared after some presidential eruption to try to smooth it over or explain a reversal or to claim some logical and strategic underpinning from presidential sentiments that often appear off-the-cuff.
Trump will have a new chance to make himself clear – or otherwise – since he is due to take part in a news conference before leaving France on Monday morning, US time.
Trump’s eruption against China
Questions about the administration’s coherence on economic policy and its messaging are why some experts fear it would be ill equipped to tackle a recession if one does materialize.
Concern along these lines mounted after China’s retaliatory move on tariffs on Friday, which was met with an extraordinary tirade by Trump against Beijing and Federal Reserve Chief Jerome Powell.
The deepening trade war with China is occurring at a nervous moment for the administration with growth slowing in Europe and some indicators suggesting the US could experience a slowdown. Trump has insisted inaccurately that China and not US consumers are paying the price for the tariffs.
A recession could be politically challenging for the President during his election year, one reason why he is berating the Fed for significant rate cuts to stimulate the economy.
At the same time however, the President is insisting there is no need to panic and that the economy after a decade-long expansion and historically low unemployment is in no trouble at all.
Still, one of his most outspoken supporters, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham raised eyebrows Sunday when he suggested that suffering amid the trade war could be justified. He said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the American people have “just got to accept the pain that comes with standing up to China,” in terms of higher prices for consumer goods.
There were more worrying signs for the administration on the economy in a CBS poll conducted by YouGov released on Sunday. Only 38% of those asked said they were feeling optimistic about the future of the US economy and 54% said Trump tries to make the economy sound better than it really is.
While Trump still had majority approval for his handling of the economy in the poll — 53% — only 25% of those asked said they believed his handling of trade with China will actually work.
As well as battering the Fed, Trump has in recent days also accused the media of talking down the economy to hurt him.
“You people want a recession because you think maybe that’s the way to get Trump out,” Trump told reporters in France.
Then in a tweet that stretched credulity sent from the G7 summit venue in Biarritz, the President claimed he was not alone in his dislike of the US press.
“The question I was asked most today by fellow World Leaders, who think the USA is doing so well and is stronger than ever before, happens to be, ‘Mr. President, why does the American media hate your Country so much? Why are they rooting for it to fail?’” Trump wrote.
An apparent win for Trump on Japan trade
Despite the worsening trade imbroglio with China, there was some good economic news for the President to tout, as he announced that a free trade deal with Japan was close to being sealed.
“It’s a very big transaction, and we’ve agreed in principle. It’s billions and billions of dollars,” said Trump in a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The President, who has faced a backlash from farming groups over his China trade war said that Abe would be buying on behalf of Japan “excess corn” from American farmers.
Abe was less effusive about the deal but said he hoped to sign it when he meets Trump at the United Nations General Assembly next month. He also clarified that the corn purchases would be made by Japanese corporations not the government in Tokyo.
Trump’s White House trade adviser Robert Lighthizer told reporters that the deal would focus on three main areas — agriculture, industrial tariffs and digital trade.
It was not immediately clear however whether the new pact would benefit the US more than the terms of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the trade pact Trump rejected early in his term.
While leaders at the summit sought to avoid public displays of discord, Trump often looked isolated. His aides complained that his plight was the result of his French hosts trying to make him look bad.
But Trump has chosen to strike out on his own and separate himself with sharp changes of US foreign policy on issues like Iran, climate and trade.
Indeed, the President’s America First policy and distrust of multinational cooperation embodied by fora like the G7 is at the core of his political appeal to many of his supporters back home.
In another sign of the US being separated from its European allies, France invited Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Biarritz. European states are trying to broker new talks with Iran to keep the nuclear deal from which Trump exited, alive.
The move appeared to be a clear signal to the Trump administration which says it is willing to talk to Iran – but recently imposed sanctions on Zarif, the official who helped negotiate the Obama administration’s nuclear accord.
In another sign of division, Trump said it was “certainly possible” that Russian President Vladimir Putin could attend next year’s G7 summit due to be hosted by the US.
Such an invitation could cause a schism in the group, since European leaders have said that the issue of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 — which caused it to be kicked out of the then G8 grouping – must be addressed ahead of Russia’s return.
But it was not all rough going for the President. In between tweeting attacks on the media,Trump passed on birthday greetings to game show host Regis Philbin, former 007 Sean Connery and wrestling promoter Vince McMahon.
This story has been updated.