At Trump White House, that elusive China trade deal is always ‘close’

On Oct. 11, president saw final deal in a few weeks. Eight weeks later, talks drag on

A container ship sits docked at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, California. President Donald Trump and China traded barbs again Friday in an escalating trade battle that has prompted global recession fears. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A container ship sits docked at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, California. President Donald Trump and China traded barbs again Friday in an escalating trade battle that has prompted global recession fears. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Posted December 6, 2019 at 12:00pm

ANALYSIS — A trade agreement with China that President Donald Trump boastfully announced nearly two months ago remains stalled, despite a top White House economic adviser’s Friday pledge that a final deal is “close.”

On Thursday, the often-verbose president was notably succinct when a reporter asked about the on-again/off-again/on-again China trade negotiations, including whether he would follow through on a threat to slap 15 percent tariffs on $160 billion worth of Chinese-made items on Dec. 15.

“Well, we’ll have to see. But right now we’re moving along. We’re not discussing that, but we are having very major discussions on December 15,” Trump said of the possible import duties. “Something could happen, but we are not discussing that yet. We are having very good discussions with China, however.”

The president, who campaigned on getting tough on Beijing over its trade practices and eventually cutting what he has promised for four years would be a paradigm-shifting deal, offered this pithy assessment of talks toward a “phase one” pact he first announced on Oct. 11: “Moving along well.”

Close, yet…

At the Trump White House, officials routinely say most major policy decisions and announcements, as well as deals with foreign governments or lawmakers, are coming in a matter of weeks. Just as routinely, however, those weeks pass with little more than repeated promises of news in a few weeks.

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Enter Lawrence Kudlow, chief White House economic adviser.

“The deal is close. It’s probably even closer than in mid-November,” Kudlow told CNBC Friday morning. “The reality is constructive talks, almost daily talks. We are in fact close.”

There’s that word again.

The president and his aides have uttered a laundry list of variations of “close” for years when promising a China trade deal that remains an elusive trophy missing from the the kept promises from the 2016 campaign he intends to tout as he seeks a second term.

Here was Trump on Tuesday at a NATO meeting in London: “And, by the way, I’m doing very well in a deal with China, if I want to make it.” He used the same “very well” assessment in a gaggle with reporters on Nov. 26.

After touring an Apple facility in Texas on Nov. 20, here was Trump: “We’re doing very nicely with China.” Reporters traveling with him seemed skeptical as they peppered him with pointed questions about the “phase one” pact he assured journalists on the White House’s South Lawn was done, save some “papering.”

“So, I can tell you this: China would much rather make a trade deal than I would,” Trump said that day in Austin, prompting a reporter to ask: “Then why haven’t they?”

“Because I haven’t wanted to do it yet,” Trump said, prompting the reporter to ask: “And why haven’t you wanted to yet?” He replied: “Because I don’t think they’re stepping up to the level that I want.”

And here was Trump after he summoned reporters to the Oval Office on Oct. 11 following what he sold as a deal-signing meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He: “And we’ve come to a very substantial ‘phase one’ deal. … We have come to a deal, pretty much, subject to getting it written. It’ll take probably three weeks, four weeks, or five weeks.”

Fast forward almost eight weeks. No deal.

Deputies only

In a sign that a final “phase one” agreement is likely some time away, Kudlow revealed conversations are now happening at the “deputy level.” That is bureaucratic-speak that means mid-level officials are working on smaller issues, leaving more complicated and hot-button matters, as they have since the talks began in 2017, to senior officials — including Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“There’s no arbitrary deadlines,” Kudlow contended. “But the fact remains December 15 is a very important date with respect to a no-go or go on tariffs.”

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Kudlow often jokes with reporters about his optimism, referring to himself multiple times as a “happy warrior.” His sunny disposition shone again Friday, describing the China talks as “intense.”

“I say intense because this is a very important matter,” he told the business-focused network. “There are so much at stake here when you go through the various categories.

“We can’t afford — we must not permit any country, China or whoever — to willy-nilly steal our breakthroughs in technology and advanced microprocessing related to 5G,” Kudlow said, referring to a major sticking point in the negotiations: the U.S. alleges that China either steals American firms’ technology secrets or forces them to cough them up in return for access to their giant consumer market.

On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters despite “a lot of misreporting,” the trade talks were continuing, adding negotiators spoke by phone Wednesday.

The administration will not be “confused about an arbitrary deadline” when asked if the Dec. 15 round of U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports will be imposed.

A day later, Kudlow insisted his boss will not accept any terms he views as unfair to U.S. companies. The latest impasse on the technology transfer and other issues could push the talks into 2020, an U.S. election year.

Trump has accused Chinese officials of repeatedly stalling the talks in the hopes they can negotiate a pact with a new Democratic U.S. chief executive, saying Beijing believes they would roll any one of that party’s 2020 front runners.

“The president has said many times if the deal is no good, if the assurances with respects to preventing future thefts, if the enforcement procedure is no good, he has said we will not go for it. We will walk away,” Kudlow insisted. “The president has said that if we can not get the enforcement and the assurances, then we will not go forward.”

Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.

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