The Slatest

Trump Hints at Regret Over China Trade War but White House Insists He Was “Misinterpreted”

President Donald Trump smiles during a bilateral meeting with Japan's Prime Minister at the Bellevue centre in Biarritz, France on August 25, 2019, on the second day of the annual G7 Summit attended by the leaders of the world's seven richest democracies, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.
President Donald Trump smiles during a bilateral meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister at the Bellevue centre in Biarritz, France on August 25, 2019, on the second day of the annual G7 Summit attended by the leaders of the world’s seven richest democracies, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.
NICHOLAS KAMM/Getty Images

The whiplash president was at it again Sunday, first appearing to signal that he was having regrets over escalating his trade war with China, but a little while later the White House backtracked and said the whole thing was nothing but a big misunderstanding. In fact, the White House insisted, Trump’s only regret is that he did raise “the tariffs higher.”

The confusing signals began at a breakfast meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, where President Donald Trump was repeatedly asked if he had second thoughts about how the escalating trade conflict with China. “I have second thoughts about everything,” he said. The president’s words obviously immediately raised eyebrows because they suggested he was possibly willing to revise his aggressive posture against China only days after he ordered U.S. companies to leave the country. But White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham issued a statement clarifying the president’s words.

“The president was asked if he had ‘any second thought on escalating the trade war with China’,” Grisham said in a statement. “His answer has been greatly misinterpreted. President Trump responded in the affirmative—because he regrets not raising the tariffs higher.” But it’s not as if Trump made the comment once. He was asked three times about the issue and each time he indicated he had some regret. Reuters breaks it down:

During his meeting with Johnson on Sunday in France, Trump was asked if he had second thoughts about his latest escalation.

“Yeah, sure. Why not?” he said.

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.

As surprising as the comments were, the White House clarification was part of a pattern we’ve seen before. At first it seemed to “mark a rare moment of self-reflection by the famously hard-nosed leader,” notes the Associated Press. “But the later reversal fit a pattern for Trump in recoiling from statements he believes suggest weakness.”

One thing that does seem clear (at least for now) is that Trump is not planning to use the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977 to force companies to leave China. Trump said he had “no plans right now” to make good on his Twitter threat from a day earlier. But, of course, the president also said he could if he wanted to. “Well, I have the right to. If I want, I could declare a national emergency,” Trump said, before claiming relations with China are going swimmingly. “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.”