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Trump sends mixed signals on China at G-7

Early on Sunday, Trump said to reporters he could have second thoughts on the China tariffs; but hours later, the White House press secretary said his "answer has been greatly misinterpreted"

By The New York Times
Published: Aug 26, 2019

President Donald Trump with other leaders in a group photo before a dinner at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, Aug. 25, 2019
Image: Erin Schaff/The New York Times
Less than five hours after President Donald Trump appeared to waver in his threats to escalate a trade war with China, the White House insisted that the president had done no such thing and that his only regret was that he had not been more aggressive.

Speaking to reporters earlier Sunday, Trump was asked if he had second thoughts about ratcheting up tariffs and threats against China last week, in moves that rattled global stock markets.

“Yeah, sure, why not?” Trump replied. “Might as well. Might as well. I have second thoughts about everything.”

Trump added that “We’re getting along very well with China” and said that he did not expect to declare an emergency that could allow him to order American companies out of China, as he had suggested days earlier.

But just hours later on Sunday, after Trump’s comments generated headlines saying he was taking a softer tone toward China, the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, said, “His answer has been greatly misinterpreted.”

“President Trump responded in the affirmative — because he regrets not raising the tariffs higher,” she said in a statement emailed to reporters.

Her statement underscored the president’s disdain for being seen as weak or backing down in the face of criticism. But it also reflected the back-and-forth nature of Trump’s trade confrontation with China, which has shifted between negotiations, threats conveyed over Twitter, and a series of escalating tariffs.

Last week, after China announced retaliatory tariffs on $75 billion in American goods, Trump reacted furiously. In a series of tweets, he condemned China’s intransigence and vowed to impose even higher tariffs on a broader set of Chinese products.

It seemed on Sunday morning that his attitude had shifted — until Grisham said it had not, at least for now.

Iran’s foreign minister has landed in Biarritz, prompting much speculation

A surprise guest, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, arrived in Biarritz, France, on Sunday, to great speculation about what his presence means.

Zarif, who met with President Emmanuel Macron of France in Paris on Friday, met in Biarritz with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian. An Iranian official said “there will be no meeting with Americans there.”

The French government invited Zarif after consulting on Saturday evening with leaders of other Group of 7 nations, French officials said.

“Iran’s active diplomacy in pursuit of constructive engagement continues,” Zarif said on Twitter afterward.

The foreign minister said he had met on the sidelines with Macron after meeting with Le Drian. He said he had also given a joint briefing to British and German officials.

“Road ahead is difficult,” he said. “But worth trying.”

The Europeans have kept up dialogue with Iran even as Trump has abandoned the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran and sought to impose “maximum pressure” on the government there. Macron and his counterparts in Britain and Germany have sought to salvage the nuclear deal, even as Iran has begun exceeding its limits.

It was not clear whether the Americans tacitly accepted Zarif’s visit to Biarritz or if it was in effect a poke at Trump by Macron.

Trump has said he would be open to negotiating with Iran, despite repeated clashes in the Persian Gulf region involving tankers and drones, and sanctions that Trump has imposed on Zarif.

“The president has said before that to the extent Iran wants to sit down and negotiate he would not set preconditions to those negotiations,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters in Biarritz on Sunday. “I’m not going to make any more comments about who’s here and who’s not here and what conversations may or may not be going on.”

Macron said earlier in the day that the G-7 leaders had agreed on two messages to Iran: “We do not want Iran to get the nuclear bomb and we do not want an escalation and destabilization of the region.”

Trump said he had not discussed or signed such a joint statement, but had no objection to Macron’s outreach.

“We’ll do our own outreach,” he said. “But you know, I can’t stop people from talking. If they want to talk, they can talk.”

Trump and Abe said a U.S.-Japan trade pact was near

Trump teased a breakthrough in trade talks with Japan on Sunday morning, saying that the United States was “very close” to a major deal.

“We’re working on a very big deal with Japan and we’re very close to getting it,” he told reporters after he met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. “It will be one of the biggest deals we’ve ever made with Japan.”

Speaking through an interpreter, Abe said, “By now, we successfully reached consensus with regard to the core elements related to agricultural and industrial trade.”

“We still have some remaining work that has to be done at the working level,” he added, referring to the precise language of a pact.

Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s trade representative, said the deal would focus on “agriculture, industrial tariffs and digital trade,” expanding access to Japanese markets for American producers. Both Trump and Abe cited an agreement for Japanese businesses to buy surplus American corn.

Trump appeared to say that the agreement would mean that he would not follow through on threats to increase tariffs on Japanese autos. “On Japan they’re staying the same,” he said.

Abe said he hoped that he and Trump would be able to sign a final agreement next month, when they attend the United Nations General Assembly.

Trump still wants to let Russia back into the club, and Europe still says ‘No

Trump has once again ruffled feathers in Brussels and beyond, by suggesting that Russia be invited back into what used to be known as the Group of 8.

Russia was suspended in 2014 after it seized Crimea from Ukraine and supported militias trying to break parts of eastern Ukraine away from the country.

Trump said last week that he thought bringing Moscow back into the fold would be “appropriate,” drawing quick rebuffs from European members France, Germany and Britain.

Administration officials downplayed the issue, noting that Russia had not asked to rejoin the club. But on Sunday, Trump said the United States, as the host of next year’s meeting, might invite Russia to participate.

At last year’s G-7 meeting, the president said Russia should be invited back, and even stated that its annexation of Ukraine was partly justified — a position roundly rejected by major allies of the United States.

“Under no condition can we agree with this logic,” Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said on Saturday. “The reasons why Russia was disinvited in 2014 are still valid.”

When Russia was admitted to the group in the late 1990s, “it was believed that it would pursue the path of liberal democracy, rule of law and human rights,” Tusk said. “Is there anyone among us who can say with full conviction, not out of business calculation, that Russia is on that path?”

European Union officials have noted that there are other international forums for Russia, like the Group of 20, that include countries like China and Saudi Arabia that are not democracies.

Talk of solidarity on North Korea could not disguise differences between Trump and Abe

Sometimes disagreements cannot be cloaked by diplomatic happy-speak.

That was the case when Trump and Abe, speaking to reporters on Sunday, had very different reactions to the fact that Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, continues to test short-range missiles.

Trump shrugged it off.

“I’m not happy about it. But again, he’s not in violation of an agreement,” the president said, adding that he and Kim had not talked about such weapons.

“I discussed long-range ballistic and that he cannot do,” Trump said. “And he hasn’t been doing it and he hasn’t been doing nuclear testing. He has done short-range, much more standard missiles. A lot of people are testing those missiles, not just him.”

Trump was clearly focused on whether the North Korean leader had violated agreements between the two of them. But when Trump asked Abe to offer his own thoughts, Abe focused instead on limits set by the United Nations.

“Our position is very clear that the launch of short-range ballistic missiles by North Korea clearly violates the relevant U.N. Security Council resolution,” Abe said through a translator. “So in that sense, it was extremely regrettable for us to experience another round of the launch of the short-range ballistic missiles by North Korea in recent days.”

But Trump and Abe both seemed determined to show that they were allied on the matter.

“I can understand how the prime minister of Japan feels,” Trump said.

Abe said, “I like to make sure that we — meaning myself and President Trump — will always stay on the same page when it comes to North Korea.”

©2019 New York Times News Service