BIARRITZ, France — Donald Trump today predicted that Beijing would blink first in its trade dispute with the U.S. but also made a rare confession that he had entertained doubts about whether the escalating tit-for-tat tariff duel was the right course.
Speaking ahead of a meeting with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the U.S. president insisted that the Chinese “want to make a deal much more than I do,” but also showed shakier confidence on the trade war than is ususual.
When asked whether he had second thoughts on the trade escalation, he replied: “Yeah, sure. Why not?” When asked the same question again, he added: “Might as well. Might as well … I have second thoughts about everything.”
The White House moved swiftly to play down any idea of vacillation. Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said the answers had been misinterpreted and that he “responded in the affirmative — because he regrets not raising the tariffs higher.”
In a lively exchange with reporters ahead of their meeting at the G7 summit in Biarritz, Trump and Johnson heaped praise on one another but could not hide significant divisions over Trump’s approach to trade and to Russia.
Taking on the increasingly widespread accusation that the U.S.-China trade war is tipping the world into a downturn, with U.S. stocks lurching into a tailspin on Friday, Trump suggested that the media wanted a recession because “maybe that’s the way to get Trump out.”
“Our country is doing really well, we have horrible trade deals but I am straightening them out,” he said. “The biggest one by far is China.”
“We are in favor of trade peace on the whole. The U.K. has profited massively in the last 200 years from free trade” — Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister
Johnson, meeting Trump for the first time as prime minister, gently demurred, venturing what he called “a faint, sheeplike note of our view on the trade war.”
“We are in favor of trade peace on the whole,” he said. “The U.K. has profited massively in the last 200 years from free trade.”
As if to prove Johnson’s point about the faintness of the U.K.’s voice, Trump seemed to have no sense that other countries were pressing him to back down.
“Nobody’s told me that,” Trump shot back after a reporter asked if allies were pressuring him to “give up” his tariff-led efforts to force a trade agreement with China.
“Nobody would tell me that,” he added. “I think they respect the trade war. I can’t say what they’ve been doing to the U.K. and to other places, but from the standpoint of the United States, what [China] has done is outrageous.”
The U.K. finds itself in an awkward position at the G7, seeking to lobby Trump over a post-Brexit trade deal, while also remaining consistent with its long-term foreign policy stance in favor of free trade and other issues. On key dividing lines between the U.S. and European allies, including policy on Iran and Russia, the U.K. is far closer to France and Germany than the U.S.
Asked about the possibility that Trump could invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to the G7 next year — a proposition that has little support beyond the White House — the U.S. and U.K. leaders said Russia had been the subject of a “lively” discussion at the summit dinner on Saturday evening.
“We had a very good discussion on Russia and President Putin, a lively discussion, but really a good one,” Trump said.
“It was lively,” Johnson agreed.
On Brexit and the prospect of a U.K.-U.S. trade deal, Trump said he had been “stymied” from moving quickly on negotiations by the previous Downing Street administration of Theresa May but that Johnson was “a different person.”
The U.K. and the U.S. cannot enter substantive negotiations on trade or strike a deal until the U.K. has left the EU. Trump suggested EU membership had been an “anchor around their ankle” for the U.K.
Asked what advice he would give Johnson on Brexit, Trump said: “He needs no advice, he’s the right man for the job. I’ve been saying that for a long time. It didn’t make your predecessor [May] very happy.”