While one may accuse the US president of many things, having second thoughts is hardly one of them: once Trump has decided on a course of action, he tends to follow through. Which is why the global press gasped when a rare case of doubt emerged this morning during Trump's breakfast meeting with the UK's Boris Johnson at the Biarritz G-7, when the US president acknowledged having second thoughts about the escalating the trade war with China... only for his top spokeswoman to later retract and say Trump meant he regretted not raising tariffs even more.
During his meeting with Johnson on Sunday at the G7 in France, the US president raised eyebrows when he responded in the affirmative to questions from reporters on whether he had any second thoughts about the tariff move.
Trump was asked if he had second thoughts about his latest escalation. “Yeah, sure. Why not?” Trump answered.
The reporter repeated the question and Trump replied: “Might as well. Might as well.”
A second reporter followed up again, asking if he had second thoughts about escalating the trade war with China.
“I have second thoughts about everything,” Trump responded very clearly in the affirmative.
Trump's odd admission was a problem because as Goldman said on Friday, it was Trump's decision to delay tariffs that was interpreted as weakness by China, leading to an escalation in the trade war when China retaliated in kind. So any further weakness - such as admitting to having doubts about the trade conflict - would make matters even worse.
Naturally, the Chinese press immediately pounced on Trump's comment, with the Global Times' notorious twitter troll and editor and chief, Hu Xijin, tweeting almost immediately that China is preparing for relations to get much worse:
"Regret? This should be seen as Pres Trump changed his tone after ordering US companies to leave China. Regardless of his specific expression each time, we're seriously making preparations for scenario in which China-US trade relations deteriorate further, even much worse than now."
Regret? This should be seen as Pres Trump changed his tone after ordering US companies to leave China.Regardless of his specific expression each time, we're seriously making preparations for scenario in which China-US trade relations deteriorate further, even much worse than now. https://t.co/AyysgrMaXJ— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) August 25, 2019
And, as one would expect, just minute later, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham "explained" that the media misinterpreted Trump’s initial remarks, "clarifying" that Trump doesn’t regret starting a trade war but he does have second thoughts on whether he should have hit the Chinese even harder.
“The president was asked if he had ‘any second thought on escalating the trade war with China.’ His answer has been greatly misinterpreted. President Trump responded in the affirmative - because he regrets not raising the tariffs higher,” Grisham said in a statement to reporters.
According to Reuters, "the president’s responses were unusual because he has been largely resolute in his demands that China change its trade practices and that tariffs were a successful tool to encourage Beijing to do so." Bloomberg echoed the assessment:
"The initial remark drew worldwide headlines because Trump is rarely one for second-guessing himself, and instead goes bigger on his ideas in the face of criticism. Grisham’s explanation is more in the line with the Trump the Group of Seven nations know, and who often drives them to distraction."
Doubtful or not, the ball is now in China's court and after Trump announced an increase in the already imposed tariffs on Chinese goods, it iw now Beijing's turn to respond. It also remains unclear if Trump will follow through on his "order" to US companies to avoid China. As a reminder, on Friday, upset about China’s retaliation, the president said he was ordering U.S. companies to find alternatives to doing business in China and move operations back to the United States. It was unclear what Trump could do to legally compel U.S. companies to abandon China.
Asked on Sunday if he would declare a national emergency over the issue, Trump said he had the right to do so but had no plans in the works.
“I could declare a national emergency. I think when they steal and take out, and — intellectual property theft, anywhere from $300 billion to $500 billion a year, and where we have a total loss of almost a trillion dollars a year ... in many ways, that’s an emergency,” he said. “I have no plan right now. Actually, we’re getting along very well with China right now. We’re talking. I think they want to make a deal much more than I do.”
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Finally, Trump was also asked whether G7 nations at the summit in Biarritz were pressing him to give up on the trade war. “No, not at all, I haven’t heard that at all,” he replied. But later, Johnson nudged him to do just that. “Just to register the faint, sheep-like note of our view on the trade war, we’re in favor of trade peace on the whole, and dialing it down a beat,” Trump's breakfast companion said.