Robert Lighthizer was apparently so exasperated from what he was hearing uttered by President Donald Trump’s mouth that he seemingly forgot one of the key rules about the White House: Never contradict the boss. Especially not in public. What followed was a tense two minutes that put on stark display Trump’s ignorance of how trade deals work even though he has long touted it as one of his administration’s key specialties and the way he keeps himself out of the minutiae of the deals that he says are key. In the middle of it all, a top Chinese official couldn’t help but let out a loud laugh, seemingly incredulous at what was unfolding before his eyes.
It all started when Trump was asked a question about how long he thought that the so-called memorandums of understanding would last in an agreement with China. Earlier reports noted negotiators have been writing up several MOUs in key areas that would make up the outline of a larger deal. It was an easy enough question but Trump decided to suddenly expound on his feelings about MOUs in general.
“I don’t like MOUs because they don’t mean anything. To me they don’t mean anything. I think you’re better off just going into a document. I was never … a fan of an MOU,” Trump said. It could have ended there but Lighthizer decided to jump in and although he didn’t look directly at the president, it certainly looked like he was contradicting his boss. “An MOU is a binding agreement between two people,” he said. “It’s detailed. It covers everything in great detail. It’s a legal term. It’s a contract.”
Trump looked annoyed as Lighthizer was talking and as soon as he was done, he made sure to know that his words were meaningless. “By the way, I disagree,” Trump told reporters and the gathered Chinese delegation. It was at that point that Vice Premier Liu He, the top Chinese negotiator, laughed out loud. “I think that a Memorandum of Understanding is not a contract to the extent that we want,” Trump said. “We’re doing a Memorandum of Understanding that will be put into a final contract, I assume. But to me the final contract is really the thing, Bob, and I think you mean that too.” And then he went on to note that “the real question” was “how long will it take to put that into a final binding contract?”
This appeared to be the latest instance of Trump seemingly being more worried about how an agreement was marketed than what it actually contained. It happened last year as well, when Trump was responsible for pushing a name change to the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as Nafta, to the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA.
Lighthizer eventually ended up realizing there was no point in fighting the issue and made it clear the term MOU would no longer be part of the negotiations. “From now on we’re not using the word memorandum of understanding anymore. We’re going to use the term trade agreement, all right?” Lighthizer said. “OK,” the Chinese vice premier replied. “Assuming you decide on an agreement … it’ll be a trade agreement between the United States and China,” Lighthizer told Trump directly. The boss was pleased. “Good,” Trump said. “I like that much better.”