WASHINGTON (CNN) – President Donald Trump and his administration have gradually taken a harder line against China on trade issues, inching closer to matching Trump’s tough talk during the campaign.
But the pace has been all too slow for a president intent on retaliating against alleged Chinese foreign trade abuses and rebalancing the US-China trading relationship.
“I want tariffs,” Trump told a coterie of top advisers in the Oval Office during retired Gen. John Kelly’s first week as chief of staff, a source with direct knowledge of the meeting told CNN.
Axios first reported details of the tense Oval Office meeting.
Trump’s demand that his advisers give him options that would empower him to level tariffs against China came as his advisers presented him with a memorandum that would empower the US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to launch a broad investigation into Chinese trade abuses concerning intellectual property rights.
But the memorandum, which Trump later signed, did not go far enough for a president determined to take aggressive action to confront Chinese trade abuses and rebalance the US-China trading relationship, which has been marked by a longstanding deficit from the US perspective.
Trump unloaded on his aides from behind his desk in the Oval Office during a meeting that was attended by his new chief of staff, Lighthizer, his then-chief strategist Steve Bannon, National Trade Council director Peter Navarro and National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, a source with direct knowledge of the meeting confirmed to CNN.
Trump argued during the meeting that China was “laughing” at the United States and repeatedly made clear he wanted his aides to give him avenues to impose tariffs on certain Chinese imports.
The memorandum was just the latest sign of action from the Trump administration aimed at countering Chinese trade practices. The Trump administration has also launched investigations into imports of steel, aluminum and other goods China has been accused of dumping in the US. But the administration’s actions on trade have also been tempered by US diplomatic efforts to enlist China’s support in the face of increasingly belligerent North Korean threats.
Trump also appeared to direct most of his frustration at Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs executive who has feuded with the Bannon wing of the White House over trade issues. While Bannon and his allies — including Navarro and sometimes Lighthizer — have pushed a harder line on trade, Cohn has urged restraint, arguing instead that the US should be cautious not to unfurl the global free trade order.
As Trump vented about a desire for more aggressive trade action, he derided the “globalists” who serve in his administration — a term Bannon and his allies have used to refer to Cohn.
Bannon was pushed out of the White House earlier this month, signaling that his influence on issues like trade would wane. But Trump’s forceful calls for more aggressive trade action make clear those views will persevere, even inside a White House where Cohn and other proponents of free trade have gained influence in the wake of Bannon’s ouster.
The contentious Oval Office meeting also gave Kelly an early look at the divisions roiling the West Wing and he quickly dispatched the group of advisers in the Oval Office to work out their differences away from the President.
Kelly’s directive that Trump’s senior-most aides hash out their differences away from the President was not the last time Kelly gave that direction as part of his efforts to instill a new sense of order among rival factions and end the squabbles that so frequently took place in front of the President before Kelly assumed his new role.