Trump’s cryptic China tweet threatens another course change on trade

There haven’t been many tweets like the one Trump sent Wednesday morning.


President Donald Trump has sent outraged tweets and combative tweets and happy tweets and tricker tweets (covfefe). There have been tweets in all capital letters and with multiple exclamation points. There have even been tweets that seemed to threaten a preemptive nuclear strike. 

But there haven't been many tweets like the one Trump sent Wednesday morning, where he was both cryptic and subtle, raised questions and even acknowledged he might not know the answer. 

Trump tweeted "Our Trade Deal with China is moving along nicely, but in the end we will probably have to use a different structure in that this will be too hard to get done and to verify results after completion." 

Trump didn't specify what, exactly, he meant by "a different structure" or "too hard to get done," and White House officials didn't respond a request for clarification. 

But his apparent reflection on the state of fragile trade negotiations came after he has absorbed a bipartisan pounding from Democrats and Republicans who've warned he's being played and misled by Chinese leaders. 

"I'm not sure what to make of that," said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a partnership of labor groups and corporations. "The messages coming out over the past 10 days, it's like you are on a roller coaster going up and down and back and forth. It's hard to get any." 

Others seemed to throw up their hands. 

"Does anyone have the slightest idea what this means?" Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Twitter. 

Trump pitched himself during the 2016 campaign as the great negotiator and consummate dealmaker, and he made China his biggest foil. 

He has spent much of 2018 trying to corner China into changing its trade relationship with the United States, first by threatening massive tariffs, and then, that tanked the stock market, by dangling the prospect of freeing Chinese telecommunication's company ZTE from a regulatory headlock. 

But his approach has been marred by missteps, China's defiance, and a fractured group of advisers that Beijing has sought to exploit. And his administration's own account of the negotiation has been littered with contradictions. 

Trump has said he would easily win a trade war with China, but his advisers have stressed there will never be a trade war. Trump has said he has a wonderful relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, but he has also questioned whether the Chinese will ever agree to an deal that allows more American companies to boost exports to China. Last week, he and top aides disagreed over whether negotiations had even begun. 

When Chinese leader Liu He left Washington on Saturday after several days of meetings and no concrete concessions, Trump spent the weekend trying to spin it as a breakthrough. But by Tuesday, he acknowledged the bipartisan pounding he was taking and started wondering whether any deal would come together. 

Sitting in the Oval Office, he referred to Xi as a "world class poker player." Maybe they would cut a deal, maybe they wouldn't, Trump said. Trump has said Xi asked the White House to ease restrictions on ZTE, and so Trump has ordered it done. But what is the United States getting in return? An agreement from China to buy more soybeans and liquid natural gas? How much. Is that it? No one seems to know. 

Observers ranging from progressive Sen. Kamala D. Harris, D-Calif., to his former chief strategist Steve Bannon pushed back on the White House's approach this week, criticism that was made apparent to Trump and others at the White House. 

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., whom Trump used to refer to as "Little Marco," sent Twitter posts about the White House's strategy with hashtags like #BadDeal and #DoNotCave. 

Trump has shown a willingness to push ahead with his adversarial trade approach despite congressional anxiety, but there are few, if any, lawmakers who have expressed support for the White House's China strategy. 

China is one of the United States's largest trading partners, with Americans purchasing more than $500 billion in goods from China each year. Trump, and members of both parties, have argued China has too many trade restrictions that make it difficult for U.S. companies to sell goods there, but he has had a hard time finding leverage to force China to open up more market access. Imposing tariffs on imports from China could drive up costs for American consumers, and if China retaliates with its own tariffs, it could hurt farmers and companies that sell products to China. 

"The President's backpedaling results from the negative reaction of his base to the so-called 'deal,' said Daniel Price, a former international economic adviser in the George W. Bush administration. "But the real problem is that he is seeking unspecified deficit-reducing purchases, that will temporarily benefit only a few companies, instead of negotiating sustainable changes to Chinese trade practices that would increase market access, level the playing field and halt coerced technology transfer." 

Few people seemed to have a solution for how to make changes without — at least temporarily — rocking the U.S.-China relationship a bit. 

In his new Twitter post, he wrote that a new "structure" was likely necessary between the United States and China. But he didn't say what that meant or what it would look like. 

He could be referring to a formal trade agreement between the two countries, but that would be incredibly difficult and launch a process that with other countries typically takes years. It would also require a vote of approval from Congress. 

It's also possible that the Twitter post was written as a passing thought. Three minutes later, Trump wrote another, completely unrelated Twitter post, about deregulation of the banking industry. 

And less than two hours after the China tweet, he reverted back to a two-word post about ongoing investigations into his campaign that left little room for misinterpretation. 

Trump tweeted "WITCH HUNT!"


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