White House Says Trump Regrets Not Raising Tariffs Higher – The Wall Street Journal

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President Trump at a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Biarritz, France, on Sunday.


Photo:

carlos barria/Reuters

By

Rebecca Ballhaus

BIARRITZ, France—The White House doubled down on President Trump’s commitment to the U.S. trade war with China on Sunday after the president appeared to show a glimmer of regret about escalating trade tensions at the Group of Seven summit here, where world leaders have largely decried his trade practices.

Asked during a breakfast with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson whether he had any second thoughts about ramping up the trade war with the announcement of increased tariffs last week in response to new levies from Beijing, Mr. Trump told reporters: “Yeah, sure. Why not?” Pressed further, he added: “Might as well. I have second thoughts about everything.”

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, some hours later, said the president’s answer had been “greatly misinterpreted.” In a statement, she said, “President Trump responded in the affirmative—because he regrets not raising the tariffs higher.”

The decision to even more tightly embrace the trade war comes as other leaders attending the G-7 have called for an end to it, saying it is damaging the global economy and weakening alliances. The president in the last two days has also clashed with other world leaders over Iran, North Korea and Russia.

European Council President Donald Tusk, speaking at the summit on Saturday, said ending trade wars was “urgent and essential.”

“Trade wars will lead to recession, while trade deals will boost the economy, not to mention the fact that trade wars among G-7 members will lead to eroding the already weakened trust among us,” he said.

Mr. Trump, as he left Washington for France on Friday, threatened to tax French wine if President Emmanuel Macron moved forward with a tax on U.S. tech companies. In the past, he has repeatedly threatened to place tariffs on European cars.

Mr. Trump on Sunday again criticized Beijing’s trade practices as “outrageous” and asserted his right to declare a national emergency on the matter, which the White House believes would give the president the authority to direct companies not to do business with China. On Friday, Mr. Trump in a series of tweets said he was ordering companies doing business with China to explore relocating—a directive he currently lacks the authority to give.

Asked Sunday if he planned to declare a national emergency on China, Mr. Trump told reporters: “I have the right to,” but didn’t say whether he would pursue that course of action.

“When they steal and take our intellectual property…in many ways that’s an emergency,” he said, but added: “I have no plans right now.” Mr. Trump said the U.S. was “getting along very well with China right now.”

Mr. Trump also suggested tensions with China were helping the U.S. reach a trade deal with Japan, the announcement of which he said was imminent. On Sunday morning, he asked U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer whether he wanted to comment on the possibility of a deal with Japan. “Presumably, something will be announced after you meet with the prime minister,” Mr. Lighthizer responded. “That’s all I’m going to say.” In his meeting with Japan’s Shinzo Abe on Sunday, Mr. Trump said only: “We’re discussing trade.”

The president’s decision to raise tariffs on China last week sent stocks and government bonds tumbling amid new concerns about global growth and the potential for a recession. Mr. Trump, asked whether he was concerned about the market on Sunday, said: “The market is doing great. Our country is doing great.”

Mr. Trump disputed that other members of the G-7, which includes France, Germany, the U.K., Japan, Italy and Canada, were pressuring him to end the trade war. “I think they respect the trade war,” Mr. Trump said, the morning after he met with the rest of the G-7 leaders at an opening dinner here. “Nobody has told me that, and nobody would tell me that.”

Minutes later, Mr. Johnson said just that. “Just to register the faint, sheeplike note of our view on the trade war, we’re in favor of trade peace on the whole, and dialing it down if we can,” he told the president. “We don’t like tariffs on the whole.”

Other leaders at the summit have also been critical of the president’s penchant for tariffs, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mr. Macron, who moments after Mr. Trump’s arrival in Biarritz on Sunday intercepted him for an impromptu lunch. There, Mr. Macron sought to explain his position on contentious issues including global trade tensions.

Mr. Trump is set to hold bilateral meetings with Mr. Trudeau later Sunday and with Ms. Merkel on Monday.

After divisions emerged between the U.S. and France on Saturday over how best to approach the summit, one area of consensus—on Iran—looked like it was emerging Sunday, when a close aide to Mr. Macron said the G-7 leaders had agreed during dinner Saturday on two main goals: Prevent Tehran from getting nuclear arms and find a path for dialogue. The aide said leaders decided it would be up to Mr. Macron, as G-7 president, to pass on the message to Iran.

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Mr. Macron later said G-7 members hadn’t given him a formal mandate.

That illusion of cooperation was knocked down minutes later. Mr. Trump, asked if he signed off on a statement to Iran that Mr. Macron would present, said he hadn’t discussed it. A person familiar with the matter said the president hadn’t agreed that France could relay a message to Iran, since he hadn’t agreed to the message that would be sent.

“We will do our own outreach, but I can’t stop people from talking,” Mr. Trump said. “If they want to talk, they can talk.”

There was one area of agreement at last night’s dinner. The leaders agreed it was too soon to invite Russia to rejoin the G-7, according to a U.S. official, after Mr. Trump in recent days had called for reinstating Moscow as a member. Russia was ejected from the group in 2014 over its annexation of Crimea.

Earlier Sunday, the president lashed out against reports of tension between the U.S. and other G-7 members. “Before I arrived in France, the Fake and Disgusting News was saying that relations with the 6 others countries in the G-7 are very tense, and that the two days of meetings will be a disaster,” he wrote. “Well, we are having very good meetings, the Leaders are getting along very well, and our Country, economically, is doing great – the talk of the world!”

Yet hours after Mr. Trump arrived in Biarritz, U.S. officials began privately criticizing Mr. Macron for his handling of the meeting, accusing his government of ignoring Washington’s input ahead of the event and of focusing its agenda on “niche” issues, such as climate change and development in Africa, to appeal to the French president’s political base.

Climate change was a major focus of last year’s G-7, too, and other world leaders said the issue was a priority ahead of this year’s summit, particularly as fires raging in the Amazon have prompted concerns about damage to the region’s ecosystem and the global environment.

—Noemie Bisserbe contributed to this article.

Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com

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