President Donald Trump departed a gathering of world leaders Saturday without striking his long-sought trade deal with China, leaving him with a major unfulfilled campaign promise just as he revs up his reelection bid.
But the leaders of the world’s biggest economies agreed that their teams should resume negotiations that had broken down several weeks ago with Trump pushing off another round of tariffs on $300 billion on Chinese imports.
That incremental step is far from what he promised Americans when he was on the campaign trail in 2016 pledging to beat China — the so-called “enemy” that cost the U.S. jobs, spied on U.S. businesses and stole U.S. technology.
Trump will now need to try to persuade supporters — some of whom have been hurt by rising prices due to his many trade disputes — that not accepting a bad deal with China is actually a win.
“I don’t think they will see this as a failure. I think they will see this as him fighting,” said Jonathan Felts, who worked in the George W. Bush White House and now lives in the swing state of North Carolina and remains close to the Trump White House. “What they see is a man who is doing exactly what he said he would.”
At a rally kicking off his reelection campaign in Florida earlier this month, Trump, a businessman who prides himself on making shrewd deals, tried to put a positive spin on his failure to secure a deal with China.
“We’ll see what happens, but we are going to have a good deal and a fair deal or we’re not going to have a deal at all and that’s OK too,” Trump told the crowd.
Trump held a series of meetings in Japan while he attended the G-20, an annual gathering of the world’s biggest economies, but did not announce any major agreements with those he spoke with, including the leaders of Japan, Germany and Russia.
Most of the attention, however, was on trade. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping and their top aides talked for more than an hour at a meeting closely watched by foreign leaders and business executives worried that the trade impasse will continue to hurt the global economy.
“You know, we’ve never really had a deal with China,” Trump said at a news conference Saturday. “Tremendous amounts of money was put into China — $500 billion a year. And I mean, you know, not just surplus and deficit. I’m talking about real, hard cash. And it should have never, ever been allowed to have happened for all of our presidents over the last number of years.”
Trump had already hit China with two rounds of tariffs after unsuccessfully pushing Beijing to change longstanding trade practices that he deems unfair. China retaliated with its own set of tariffs.
“I think you’ve heard the president say publicly on a number of occasions that he’s quite comfortable with where we are, and he’s quite comfortable with any outcome of those talks,” a senior administration official said.
On Saturday, at least, they agreed to the ceasefire.
A former Trump adviser who remains close to the White House said Trump still looks engaged on the issue in contrast to lawmakers of both parties who try to tackle tough issues, such as immigration, only to give in when they can’t initially work out a deal. “The minute things got tough, they bailed,” the former adviser said. “He’s going to keep talking.”
But David Dollar, who served as economic and financial emissary to China for the Treasury secretary and is now a leading expert on China for the center-left Brookings Institution, said Trump was never going to leave his meeting with Xi this week with a win when the two sides hadn’t been talking for weeks.
“There hasn’t been enough preparation for there to be a really detailed trade deal between China and the United States,” he said.
Now, after more than two years of negotiations and his reelection campaign looming, Trump faces intense pressure to find a compromise before his yet-to-be-named opponent criticizes his lack of deal-making skills and his tariff threats continue to cost Americans money, including in states that helped him win in 2016.
And some of Trump’s allies fear that the tariffs could put a dent in the economy — his strongest reelection selling point — though they note the economy has stayed strong despite earlier Trump-imposed tariffs.
“Exporters are suffering from the retaliatory tariffs from China,” Matthew Goodman, who served as director for international economics on the National Security Council staff and is now senior adviser for Asian economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It’s causing some political blowback for the president. His polls in some states that are red states and farm states are not as good as he would like. And so, you know, it’s possible that he has an incentive to do a deal.”
Scott Jennings, who worked under President George W. Bush and is close to the Trump White House, said Trump still has plenty of time left in his term to make good on this campaign promise.
“Trump is in a strong political position,” he said. “He’s put so much effort in for them to roll over and accept less is not an option.”