It was Sen. Marco Rubio, not Donald Trump, who used a morning tweet Tuesday to help shape the day’s agenda. The Florida Republican slammed the president’s trade talks with China, prompting other members to voice their concerns.
Rubio wrote that China is “out-negotiating the administration & winning the trade talks right now,” criticizing the Trump administration for putting on hold tariffs aimed at Beijing while moving ahead with efforts to save troubled Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE. He also panned the White House for not forcing concessions from Chinese officials.
Sadly #China is out-negotiating the administration & winning the trade talks right now. They have avoided tariffs & got a #ZTE deal without giving up anything meaningful in return by using N.Korea talks & agriculture issues as leverage. This is #NotWinning https://t.co/5kGO3qRGfY
A round of U.S.-China trade talks stalled late last week before culminating on Saturday with a vague announcement from the White House that the Chinese government had agreed to “measures to substantially reduce the United States trade deficit” and to “significantly increase purchases of United States goods and services.” The White House statement also promised “meaningful increases” in U.S. agriculture and energy products moving into the Chinese market.
Then came reports that the two sides are close to a deal that would throw a lifeline to ZTE, which had been on the brink of collapse after penalties from the Trump administration for allegedly breaching American sanctions by selling its wares in countries like Iran and North Korea.
Watch: Rubio Leads Chorus of Lawmakers Critical of Trump’s Trade Talks With China
Some lawmakers agreed with Rubio, saying Tuesday the president and his team are being too lenient on China and falling short of his own campaign promises to enact policies to alter Beijing’s trade practices — tactics candidate Trump once said are “raping our country.”
“Well, we’re at no conclusion yet. But I have concerns about the overall trade strategy,” said Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation member Roy Blunt.
Asked how he would like the administration to overhaul its trade policies, the Missouri Republican took a long breath then replied: “I think we should be opening markets instead of being focused on what we are focused on now.”
Another Commerce, Science and Transportation member, Richard Blumenthal, said he hopes “the president will be tougher and more effective.”
“I think we need to be much more resolute and focused in dealing with China,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “We need to focus on actions rather than words. China has been a chronic violator of basic rules of fairness by manipulating their currency, stealing our intellectual property. I think we should be much tougher.”
When it comes to legislation intended to change Trump’s approach, Blumenthal suggested Republicans are unlikely to deliver what would be a major rebuke of Trump. “I think there are actions we could take, but I don’t know how many of my colleagues would agree with the stronger approach,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, reacting to the ZTE deal reports, bluntly declared defeat.
“If these reports are true, the fines and board changes will do nothing to protect American national or economic security and are simply a diversion from the fact we have lost,” Schumer said. “President Xi [Jinping] has played President Trump and Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin.”
The Democratic leader later applauded the Senate Banking Committee for approving an amendment with a resounding 23-2 bipartisan vote that would limit Trump’s ability to relieve sanctions on any telecommunications company. The vote was a rare bipartisan move to limit Trump’s power; GOP members have mostly resisted such steps.
“Both parties have come together today to strongly rebuke ZTE and the administration’s soft approach,” Schumer said, calling the amendment a “huge” move “in our fight against the Chinese, and we should pass this legislation on the floor immediately.”
The president even got into the act of critiquing his own administration’s performance during the recent talks. He relied “no” when reporters asked him in the Oval Office if he is happy with the outcome.
“China has made a fortune,” he said of the Asian powerhouse’s trade relationship with the United States. “I’m not satisfied but we have a long way to go.”
Trump also denied cutting a deal with Xi’s government over the hemorrhaging telecommunications company. “There is no deal. We will see what happens,” he said. “We’re discussing various deals.”
Though some of their colleagues are critical, other Republicans are standing behind the GOP president.
“I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say they are winning, but China has won in the past. That’s why I support the president’s position that we’ve got to do a better job of negotiating a level playing field with China,” said Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
Tillis sidestepped a question about whether the president has been successful at just that, saying: “I think the president has done a good job in highlighting the disparity in our trade relationship. And, right now, whether it’s China or North Korea, I think his instincts are serving the country well.”
“No, I don’t think so,” said Sen. James Inhofe, who monitors U.S.-China relations as the second-ranking Armed Services Republican, when asked if Rubio is correct that China is winning the trade dispute. “I just got back from the South China Sea, where they’re probably the most powerful as anywhere in the world. Right now, it’s not so much the trade issue with China as it is their huge buildup of military. All our allies over there think they’re building up for World War III.”
And on the question of whether President Trump has matched candidate Trump’s trade promises, Inhofe predicted “he’ll be good on these talks when it’s over with. He’ll have some adverse coverage until then, but he’s a great negotiator.”
Watch: FBI Director Says Trump Did Not Consult on ZTE