BIARRITZ, France — President Donald Trump on Sunday signaled he might be having regrets about his deepening trade conflict with China, telling reporters less than 48 hours after he pledged to raise tariffs on Beijing that he has “second thoughts about everything.”
Asked during a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain whether he was second-guessing his posture on China, Trump said: “Yeah, sure why not. Might as well. Might as well.”
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The comments marked the president’s first public signal of regret about how he was fighting China through escalating tariffs. They attracted immediate attention across U.S. media because of the unusual nature of Trump’s remarks, leading White House officials to seek clarity from him in between bilateral sit-downs on Sunday morning. The president told aides, “You know what I meant,” according to a person familiar with the conversation.
About five hours later, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said Trump’s answer to a question about whether he had second thoughts on his approach with China had been “greatly misinterpreted.”
“President Trump responded in the affirmative — because he regrets not raising the tariffs higher,” Grisham wrote in the statement. Trump himself broached the topic of China only once more during the day — at an impromptu announcement on trade with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.
Trump’s comments came on the heels of his latest escalation in his trade war with China, which sent U.S. stocks into a downward spiral on Friday. Hours before departing for France for the annual G-7 summit, the president announced in a fiery series of tweets that he planned to raise tariffs to 30 percent from 25 percent on $250 billion in Chinese goods that were already scheduled to be taxed beginning Oct. 1 and also raise tariffs on $300 billion of other Chinese goods to 15 percent from 10 percent starting Sept. 1. That came after an announcement from China’s Finance Ministry earlier Friday imposing new tariffs on U.S. imports starting next month in retaliation for Trump’s tariff announcement earlier this month.
Trump’s “second thoughts“ on China came after a week in which the president quickly flip-flopped on other policy issues including gun restrictions, new tax cuts to fight a potential recession and purchasing Greenland from Denmark.
Despite saying Sunday that he regretted his administration’s strained relationship with China, the president offered few other signs that he is prepared to back away from his demands with the world’s second-largest economy. He claimed the Chinese “want to make a deal much more than I do,” and bemoaned his predecessors for allowing Beijing “to get away with taking hundreds of billions of dollars out [of the U.S.] every year and putting it into China.”
Trump also said he had not been advised by U.S. allies to end his trade war with China, even as Johnson said the United Kingdom favored “trade peace on the whole” and did not like tariffs. Other European officials spent the weekend at the G-7 warning that Trump’s trade wars would lead to a global recession.
“Nobody’s told me that,” Trump shot back after a reporter asked whether allies were pressuring him to “give up” his efforts to broker 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 president also suggested on Sunday that he had no plans to enforce his Friday edict on Twitter ordering U.S. companies to seek alternatives to manufacturing in China. Before his departure for France, the president invoked the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977 as his authority to force action by U.S. firms.
Asked on Sunday whether he would do so, Trump said: “Well, I have the right to, if I want. I could declare a national emergency.” But, Trump said, “I have no plan right now. Actually, we’re getting along very well with China right now. We’re talking.”
Trump and Johnson met early Sunday morning, prior to a session with leaders from the rest of the G-7 countries on global economics, foreign policy and security issues. The president is scheduled to meet separately with Abe and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada later on Sunday.
Before his breakfast with Johnson, Trump wrote on Twitter that he and his G-7 counterparts were “having very good meetings [and] getting along very well.”
Trump also hinted during his meeting with Johnson that he might be nearing a trade deal with Japan, something White House officials have previously said would bolster the president’s argument that his protectionist policies work.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who attended the bilateral session with Johnson, “I’m going to say presumably something will be announced after we meet with the prime minister of Japan.”