Well, Donald Trump’s much ballyhooed meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He produced no shortage of ostensibly notable headlines – with an emphasis on “ostensibly”.
This week has put your editor in a particularly sarcastic mood, which is why I feel like I need to remind you that very much contrary to his “dealmaker” mythology, Trump has demonstrated time and again over the last two years that he couldn’t negotiate his way out of a wet paper bag if his life depended on it.
Just this month, for instance, “the art of the deal” produced a comparatively paltry $1.375 billion in funds for border barriers, a sum so far removed from the $5.7 billion figure Trump was demanding that the only way to bridge the gap was to declare a national emergency and literally steal money from other places.
Given his gross ineptitude when it comes to negotiating, it should probably come as no surprise that the trade-related quotables from the photo op we previewed here on Friday morning were nebulous in the extreme.
For instance, after reminding everyone that “the nice part” about the Mueller probe is that “there was no colloooosion and obstruction”, Trump said this about the odds of a trade deal with China:
Got that? Here it is again:
Well, I think I can speak for the United States, the question is an interesting one: ‘Is it more likely that a deal happens or doesn’t happen?’ Speaking for the United States, I would say that it’s probably more likely that a deal does happen. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.
Now, for one thing, characterizing that as “an interesting question” seems to understate the case, considering this whole press event was convened specifically to talk about trade with China and to sort out whether or not a deal is going to happen. In other words, it’s not only “an interesting” question, it is the only question.
But beyond that, saying it’s likely that a deal happens only to immediately emphasize that a deal might not happen is so transparent in terms of betraying the extent to which Trump really does want a deal but is also keen on projecting a “tough” image that you almost feel sorry for him.
Asked about Huawei and 5G, we got a taste of “tech Trump”, which is always highly amusing:
As far as the prospect of Congress nullifying his emergency declaration, Trump said he would veto any resolution and predicted it “wouldn’t survive a veto”.
In the same vein, he also suggested he doesn’t expect any GOP defections. That, despite the fact that at least a couple of Republicans have already suggested they would in fact vote with Democrats to oppose it.
When pressed on whether it might make sense to “moderate his language” given that he appears to have inspired a would-be domestic terrorist who apparently planned to attack some of the people the president has repeatedly maligned, Trump said “no”, adding that unlike what your eyes and ears are telling you, he’s been “very nice”.
On Bob Kraft and the hookers, Trump offered this:
Yes, “it’s very sad” and Trump was “very surprised to see it”.
That’s probably true. Trump likely was “very surprised” that a billionaire would pay for sex without making the proper arrangements to ensure he doesn’t get arrested for it. If only Kraft had called up a porn star, taken her to a hotel and hired Michael Cohen to pay her off afterwards, Bob wouldn’t be in this mess.
As silly as all of the above is, the highlight of the whole thing came when Trump and Bob Lighthizer couldn’t agree on what a “contract” is or on the relative merits of contracts versus MOUs. This is was a highly ridiculous moment, which explains why Liu He literally laughed at Trump and Lighthizer as they tried to figure it out in real time.
You get the idea – just your standard, rambling press event that found Trump going off script to riff on anything and everything reporters wanted to throw his way at the expense of brevity, clarity and in this case, the sanity of the Chinese delegation which was visibly bemused at various intervals.
As far as the takeaway for the trade war is concerned, it’s clear that something will ultimately come out of this, although it’s not yet clear what. There’s little chance that Mnuchin and Lighthizer are going to let this fall completely apart even if Bob is inclined to make things as difficult as possible for Beijing. A testament to that is Mnuchin’s contention that an agreement on a currency pledge has in fact been reached although, as documented here extensively over the past couple of days, that wasn’t really as contentious an issue as it sounded.
In any case, you have to feel sorry for China at this juncture. It has to be demoralizing to know that you’ve been negotiating for the better part of a year with a guy who only knows what year it actually is because keeping track of time is critical when you’re campaigning for another term as leader of the previously free world.