The following is a rare account of President Trump in a small Oval Office meeting, venting at senior staff for sometimes resisting his hawkish trade agenda.
[Jonathan Swan | August 27, 2017 | Axios]
The scene: The Oval Office, during Gen. Kelly’s first week as Chief of Staff. Kelly convened a meeting to discuss the administration’s plans to investigate China for stealing American intellectual property and technology. Kelly stood beside Trump, behind the Resolute desk. In front of the desk were U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, senior trade adviser Peter Navarro, top economic adviser Gary Cohn, and Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Trump, addressing Kelly, said, “John, you haven’t been in a trade discussion before, so I want to share with you my views. For the last six months, this same group of geniuses comes in here all the time and I tell them, ‘Tariffs. I want tariffs.’ And what do they do? They bring me IP. I can’t put a tariff on IP.” (Most in the room understood that the president can, in fact, use tariffs to combat Chinese IP theft.)
“China is laughing at us,” Trump added. “Laughing.”
Kelly responded: “Yes sir, I understand, you want tariffs.”
Gary Cohn, who opposes tariffs and the protectionist trade measures pushed by the Bannonites, had his shoulders slumped and was clearly appalled by the situation.
Staff secretary Rob Porter, who is a key mediator in such meetings, said to the president: “Sir, do you not want to sign this?” He was referring to Trump’s memo prodding Lighthizer to investigate China — which may lead to tariffs against Beijing.
Trump replied: “No, I’ll sign it, but it’s not what I’ve asked for the last six months.” He turned to Kelly: “So, John, I want you to know, this is my view. I want tariffs. And I want someone to bring me some tariffs.”
Kelly replied: “Yes sir, understood sir, I have it.”
At one point in the meeting, Navarro pulled out a foam board chart. Trump didn’t pay attention to it, saying “I don’t even know what I’m looking at here.”
Trump made sure the meeting ended with no confusion as to what he wanted.
“John, let me tell you why they didn’t bring me any tariffs,” he said. “I know there are some people in the room right now that are upset. I know there are some globalists in the room right now. And they don’t want them, John, they don’t want the tariffs. But I’m telling you, I want tariffs.”
Kelly broke up the meeting and said the group would work things out and reconvene at the appropriate time.
A White House official responded to the above account by telling Axios: “The president has been very clear about his agenda as it relates to trade. Discussions pertaining to specific tariffs and trade deals are ongoing and have already resulted in many positive developments.”
Be smart: The nationalists in the White House took public credit for the China IP policy, arguing at the time that it would lead to a much-needed crackdown on Beijing. But now that he’s outside of the White House, you should expect Bannon and his allies to argue that what’s been done so far isn’t enough, and that Trump needs to treat China as an adversary in an economic war.