White House

Trump jets to Japan to wing it at G-20 summit as Iran tensions build

Official unable to lay out agenda for high-stakes meetings with Xi, Putin and MBS

Air Force One arrives with President Donald Trump for a rally in Montoursville, Pa., on May 20. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After a week of brinksmanship and backing down, President Donald Trump  heads to a G-20 summit in Japan on Wednesday for talks with other world leaders amid a volatile confrontation with Iran and stalled trade talks with China.

Senior administration officials made clear this week that Trump, who admits his negotiating style is based on gut feelings and big bets, will largely wing it at the meeting. Officials declined to describe any set agenda for the president’s talks with world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The Xi and Moon meetings will focus on trade and North Korea’s nuclear arms program. But on both matters, a senior administration official contended, “I don’t think the president is feeling any pressure on either of those accounts.”

Even amid stalled trade talks and a tariff battle with Beijing that his supporters say is causing them economic pain, the official said Trump would be “quite comfortable with any outcome” from his one-on-one negotiations with Xi — including no tangible outcome at all.

The U.S. leader, stymied on the world stage and at home in recent weeks and searching for breakthroughs, first threatened to slap tariffs on all goods coming into the country from Mexico. He later backed down. Next came Iran’s shootdown of an American military drone and his initial approval of a retaliatory strike. Trump backed down, canceling the airstrikes. Over the weekend, he reiterated plans to round up undocumented migrant families. Later that afternoon, he backed down.

Trump in recent weeks has repeatedly issued warnings through reporters to Xi, saying if the U.S. and China were unable to strike a sweeping trade pact, he is prepared to slap new tariffs on around $300 billion in Chinese-produced goods. Given his recent penchant for changing his mind, just what will happen when he and Xi meet on the sidelines of the G-20 summit is anyone’s guess.

[U.S.-Iran confrontation escalates as Trump threatens ‘obliteration’ after Rouhani’s insult]

“It’s hard to know how this is going to come out. I think it’s, you know, greater than zero risk that there will actually be a deal,” said Matthew Goodman, who worked on Asian economic issues for the Obama White House. “I think that’s pretty unlikely, but it’s possible … because President Trump likes deals.”

While the odds of a final deal are slim, the two leaders could agree on a path forward — essentially a roadmap for their staffs to resume talks and some broad parameters where they personally agree on unresolved matters.

“More likely is that they will agree to a truce, and to restart talks and, in a time-limited way, try to come to some sort of deal within three months,” said Goodman, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A low bar

Setting minimal expectations for the president’s meetings with foreign leaders on major topics has become commonplace for his aides, and in a Monday evening conference call, a senior Trump official set a noticeably low bar for the Xi talks. 

“He’s quite comfortable with where we are … so it’s really just, you know, an opportunity for the president to maintain his engagement, as he has, very closely with his Chinese counterpart,” the official said. “Even as trade frictions persist, he’s got the opportunity to see where the Chinese side is since the talks last left off.”

Where those yearslong negotiations left off was at loggerheads over a raft of issues such as the U.S. side’s allegations of China stealing American firms’ intellectual property and manipulation of the Chinese yuan. Trump and Xi did agree to a temporary tariff-freezing deal at last year’s G-20 summit, but that pact fell apart when the broader talks ceased.

Many trade and Trump observers are warning the Xi talks could go the other way — even as farmers and small-business owners who are part of the president’s political base complain about China’s retaliatory tariffs hurting them.

“If Trump is unhappy with what’s on offer [by Xi], however, he could use the G-20 platform to threaten more tariffs or otherwise embarrass China’s leadership,” according to Andrew Chatzky of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Trump has … accused Beijing of playing for time so it could negotiate with a future U.S. president instead,” Chatzky noted. “The trade war is not only damaging both countries but also the entire global economy. … Trump has indicated he believes tariffs will boost domestic producers even if the broader economy suffers. If that view wins out, any G-20 truce could be short-lived.”

Increasingly, even Republican lawmakers from agriculture- and manufacturing-heavy states are warning Trump to ease his tariffs against China.

For instance, Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa opened a June 18 hearing with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer with praise for the renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement. But the Iowa Republican also cautioned the administration about its use of tariffs, noting that duties on Chinese imports and foreign steel and aluminum products have taken $21.7 billion “out of the pockets of hardworking Americans.”

And House Foreign Affairs ranking member Michael McCaul of Texas first echoed the president’s tough-on-China rhetoric when addressing the Ripon Society.

“The Chinese have been ripping us off for three decades,” McCaul said in a Trumpian line. “The intellectual property theft is huge. The tech transfers — why create when you can steal? This is the first president to try to take China on with trade.”

But then he offered what amounted to blunt criticism of the Republican president: “I hope it gets wrapped up soon, because it hurts our technology companies and it hurts our agriculture. It’s a short-term pain for hopefully a long-term gain. So I hope it gets resolved soon.”

Hornets’ nests

Even as the American chief executive talks with his Chinese counterpart, recent tensions with Iran will hang over his time in Asia — just as his Mexico tariff threat hung over his recent trip to the Europe for a state visit in London and D-Day ceremonies in the U.K. and France. Yet having foreign travel clouded by other matters has become old hat for a president who isn’t afraid to poke multiple hornets’ nests at once.

[Trump’s 2020 re-election rally signals 2016 strategy may be used again]

Enter Shinzo Abe.

The Japanese prime minister was the first world leader to lavish praise on Trump after he took office, praising the president’s business acumen and even his golf game. Now it could be up to Abe to help Trump keep post-World War II alliances intact and ward off a shooting war with Tehran.

“I think Abe sees himself in a position almost to bridge Europe and Canada and the U.S., which is a really unique and, in some ways for Japan, exciting position to be in but also very worrisome,” said Michael Green, who led Asian affairs for George W. Bush’s National Security Council.

“Abe is in a similar position on Iran, in some ways. As you know, he went to Iran and he’s probably the only G-7 leader … who the Iranians would accept,” he added. “I think, right now, he’s about it. He’s probably also the only G-7 leader who Donald Trump would have represent the U.S. in a discussion in Tehran. So that’s also a really unprecedented and quite exciting but also nerve-wracking position for Abe to be in.”

Even amid a growing crisis with Tehran — with its leaders warning Tuesday that the door has slammed shut on diplomacy after new U.S. sanctions were announced the previous day — administration officials signaled the president has no set ask of the other 19 leaders he’ll see in Japan.

His Iran-focused diplomacy will include a private meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been accused of ordering the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year.

“On the president’s meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, the intent is to discuss the escalation in the region as a result of Iran’s recent provocative acts,” the senior administration official said. “And I think they’re exchanging views on how to address … regional stability.”

Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.