White House

Soybean shocker: China surprises Trump administration with Oval Office announcement

Tons or bushels question causes initial confusion inside West Wing

Amid tough trade talks with China, President Donald Trump says American farmers will be “happy” with increased Chinese purchases of U.S. soybeans — though there was initial confusion about quantity. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A Chinese official surprised the Trump administration by announcing plans to increase purchases of American soybeans in an Oval Office meeting with President Donald Trump, a senior U.S. official said Thursday as a round of trade talks concluded without a deal.

“Yes. The answer is yes. It was a surprise announcement in the sense I didn’t know about it until a very short time before,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told Roll Call during a briefing with a group of reporters following several of days of talks with Chinese officials.

The announcement set off confusion inside the West Wing, with senior aides initially unsure whether the Chinese official indicated his government would increase its daily buys of U.S. soybeans to 5 million bushels or “tons,” as Trump himself said after the official made the announcement while seated across from his customary seat behind the Resolute Desk.

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Trump told reporters the Chinese official had said “per day,” but reporters who were in the Oval Office and closely reviewed the audio determined the Chinese official said “today,” meaning they were announcing it on Thursday.

The confusion was clarified a couple hours after the Oval Office scene, with a White House official saying the “Chinese will purchase 5 million MT of soybeans,” using shorthand for metric tons.

The Chinese are expected to ramp up their soybean purchases via a series of individual buys rather than a single purchase, the official said.

The Chinese delegation chose to extend Trump an olive branch during the Oval Office meeting, and the president seemed impressed. “That’s going to make our farmers happy. That’s a lot of soybeans,” he quipped.

But that was the only scant detail either side was willing to divulge about the high-stakes talks ahead of a March 1 deadline for a deal. If significant progress is not made or no pact is in place, U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports will increase substantially.

Lighthizer and Lawrence Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser, were mostly tight-lipped during a pen-and-pad briefing with reporters late Thursday afternoon. And, as often happens in the Trump White House, they sent conflicting signals.

“Will we have an agreement? I don’t know,” Lighthizer said, though he stressed he rarely expresses either optimism or pessimism about such talks.

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But an hour earlier, the president declared “tremendous progress.”

Lighthizer did make clear that any potential trade pact reached with China would be a bilateral one that would not be sent to Capitol Hill for congressional approval.

Time and again as he went around the Roosevelt Room’s long table, Trump’s top trade negotiator made clear his boss will make any and all crucial decisions and ultimately decide whether he puts his signature on a final pact.

Will Trump go to China to try to seal the deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with whom he often boasts about having a close relationship? “He’ll certainly make his own decision,” the trade representative said.

Finally, Lighthizer shined a light on the administration’s internal deliberations.

“The president is very closely involved in these negotiations,” he said. “He’ll make the decisions.”

Also watch: Trump warns of another shutdown if Congress doesn't reach a new deal by Feb. 15

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