Moneybox

The White House Wants You to Know That Everything Is Going Absolutely Fine in Its Trade Talks With China

Robert Lighthizer, seated at a conference table clasping his hands in front of him.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in a Cabinet meeting at the White House.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Donald Trump threw the world for a loop and sent markets diving by casually suggesting that his administration’s eagerly awaited trade deal with China might not happen until, oh, some time after 2020. “I have no deadline,” the president told reporters. “In some ways I like the idea of waiting until after the election for the China deal.”

Trump’s comments were discouraging for anyone hoping that his administration might be on the verge of de-escalating its trade war, since they appeared to signal that Trump would be comfy settling in for a long-haul conflict. Until that moment, after all, Washington and Beijing were seemingly getting close to a preliminary “phase one” deal that could roll back some tariffs and avert a new round set for December. Were talks now on the rocks?

No. Absolutely not. Everything is just fine, thank you. Or so some anonymous administration officials are telling Bloomberg on Wednesday.

The people, who asked not to be identified, said that U.S. President Donald Trump’s comments Tuesday downplaying the urgency of a deal shouldn’t be understood to mean the talks were stalling, as he was speaking off the cuff. Recent U.S. legislation seeking to sanction Chinese officials over human-rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang are unlikely to impact the talks, one person familiar with Beijing’s thinking said.

U.S. negotiators expect a phase-one deal with China to be completed before American tariffs are set to rise on Dec. 15, the people said. Outstanding issues in the talks include how to guarantee China’s purchases of U.S. agricultural goods and exactly which tariffs to roll back, they added.

So everything is on track. Supposedly. Probably. Who really knows? Sometimes the president says something and means it. Sometimes the president says something and it has no meaning at all. For what it’s worth, markets are back up today. People are feeling optimistic again.

If there’s a useful lesson for the world here, it’s that people shouldn’t buy or sell stocks based on Trump’s off-handed comments about the state of trade talks, which may or may not reflect what his negotiators are actually up to. This is a lesson we should have learned by now. The man has made up phone calls in the past, after all. But it’s yet another reminder that often it’s best to ignore what comes out of our president’s mouth—except for the times when it’s not. We’ll see!