Amid the impeachment proceedings on Capitol Hill, President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed the first of two significant milestones on trade — an agreement with China that amounts to a ceasefire in his war with the Asian giant.
Trump is expected to get a second win on the issue later this week, with the Senate expected to approve a revised trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. Aides say Trump plans to trumpet both as part of his reelection sales pitch that he is a good steward of the economy.
Gallup polling recently found 57 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the economy (42 percent disapprove), while 54 percent disapprove of his handling of trade issues (44 percent approve).
“Together we are righting the wrongs of the past … for America’s farmers,” Trump said before he and China’s vice premier signed the deal, calling it a “momentous step.”
The U.S. leader announced he will go to China “in the not so distant future” to commemorate the pact there.
“Our negotiations were tough, honest, open and respectful, leading us to this really incredible breakthrough,” Trump said. “Most people thought this could never happen. Should have happened 25 years ago, by the way, that’s okay,” he added, taking a swipe at his predecessors.
For a half hour, Trump read from a list of industry executives who were in the room. He plugged his real estate business and joked he needs a few good lawyers, a quip about his impeachment.
“Just be strong,” Trump told the executives in the room, imploring them to refuse to give their technological secrets to China. “Our companies were too weak.”
The president took a shot at Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, saying he saw the Democrat on television voicing his opposition to the pact.
“He knew nothing about the deal,” Trump alleged, saying Schumer only opposes it because Trump is a Republican.
Under the “phase one” deal with China, the administration agreed to hold off on $160 billion in tariffs on some Chinese-made items, and to cut from 15 percent to 7 percent import duties on another $112 billion in products from that country. China promised to take steps to allow American companies doing business there to shield their intellectual property.
If “phase two” talks lead to a deal, Trump said he will remove all tariffs on Chinese goods. And he again offered a new timetable for the next round of talks, saying those would being “very shortly.”
U.S. officials believe all remaining trade issues with China could be folded into a second phase. Trump doubts a “phase three” would be needed.
Trump used his remarks to mostly thank and playfully tease Cabinet members and aides who participated in the talks.
Spotted in a packed East Room were Republican members including Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. Trump ally Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina was seen taking his seat in the presidential lectern with a smile. There are two tables by the lectern, with American and Chinese flags along the back wall.
Beijing also assured the White House it would cease requiring U.S. firms to share their technologies in return for access to the massive Chinese market, and buy more U.S. agriculture products.
“It’s not everything,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Fox News. “There will be a ‘phase two.’ But this is the first time we’ve had a comprehensive agreement with China.”
The president has sent mixed signals about a follow-on pact. He has said those talks will start immediately, but more recently floated putting off a new round of negotiations until after Election Day.
Trump first announced the pact in mid-October, promising it would be finalized in just a few weeks. Instead, it took a few months to iron out lingering issues.
The president touted the first stage of the China deal Tuesday night during a campaign rally in Milwaukee, telling supporters it will “massively [boost] exports of products made and produced right here in the Great state of Wisconsin.”
The White House was in full spike-the-football mode Wednesday.
Trump chief’s economic adviser Lawrence Kudlow made the rounds prior to the boss’ late-morning signing event to tout the benefits of the pact with China, saying that, “between the two great nations, nothing like this has ever happened before.”
Kudlow, speaking on his former network CNBC, said the Wednesday announcement shows the president’s trade policy has been working.
“He’s shown us that tough negotiation as a means to the end work, and tough negotiations includes tariffs,” Kudlow said. “He has shown that tariffs are part of tough negotiations in pursuit of market openings.”
He did not want to entertain a question noting that President Xi Jinping is not in Washington for the signing.
“Don’t go there, please. Don’t make this little. This is not little. This is huge,” Kudlow said.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.