BIARRITZ, France — President Donald Trump said Sunday that he had second thoughts about escalating the trade war with China, but the White House later reversed that message saying the president was misinterpreted and that his only regret in hiking tariffs is that he didn’t raise them higher.
Trump faced a tense reception from world leaders meeting amid mounting anxiety of a global economic slowdown at the Group of Seven summit in France. During a breakfast meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Trump suggested he had qualms about the spiraling conflict. “Yeah. For sure,” Trump told reporters when asked if he has second thoughts about escalating the dispute, adding he has “second thoughts about everything.”
But hours later, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham issued a statement saying Trump’s comments about U.S. tariffs on China were “greatly misinterpreted.” She said Trump only responded “in the affirmative — because he regrets not raising the tariffs higher.”
The comments appeared at first to mark a rare moment of self-reflection by the famously hard-nosed leader. But the later reversal fit a pattern for Trump in recoiling from statements he believes suggest weakness.
Trump had been trying to use the conference to rally global leaders to do more to stimulate their economies, as fears rise of a potential slowdown in the U.S. ahead of his reelection. Trump’s counterparts, including Johnson, are trying to convince him to back off his trade wars with China and other countries, which they see as contributing to the economic weakening.
The meetings come days after Trump escalated his trade war with China, following China’s announcement Friday that it would slap new tariffs on $75 billion in American goods. Trump responded with more tariffs of his own and issued an extraordinary threat to declare a national emergency in an attempt to force U.S. businesses to cut ties with China.
Johnson praised Trump for America’s economic performance during the jovial breakfast, their first since his elevation to the prime minister post in July. But he chided Trump on his unbending China policy. “Just to register a faint sheep-like note of our view on the trade war,” he told the American leader. “We’re in favor of trade peace.”
Trump told reporters he has “no plans right now” to follow through on his emergency declaration threat, but insisted he would be within his rights to use a 1977 law used to target rogue regimes, terrorists and drug traffickers as the newest weapon in the clash between the world’s largest economies
“If I want, I could declare a national emergency,” Trump said. He cited China’s theft of intellectual property and the large U.S. trade deficit with China, saying “in many ways that’s an emergency.”
Trump then entered the first official summit meeting, initially set to be a discussion of foreign policy and security issues. But White House aides claimed he engineered a late change to the summit schedule, adding economic issues to the agenda.
Trump planned to press leaders about what can be done to spur growth in the U.S. and abroad, as well as to open European, Japanese and Canadian markets to American manufacturers and producers. Trump has imposed or threatened to impose tariffs on all three markets in his pursuit of free, fair and reciprocal trade.
The meeting of the G-7 nations — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.S. — in the beach resort town of Biarritz comes at one of the most unpredictable moments in Trump’s presidency. His public comments and decision-making increasingly have seemed erratic and acerbic of late.
Only hours before his arrival in Biarritz Saturday, Trump threatened anew to place tariffs on French wine imports to the U.S. in a spat over France’s digital services tax; the European Union promised to retaliate. That was the backdrop for a late addition to his summit schedule — a two-hour lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron outside the opulent Hotel du Palais.
The summit host said the two men were discussing “a lot of crisis” around the world, including Libya, Iran and Russia, as well as trade policy and climate change. But he also echoed Trump’s calls for Europe to do more to address the global slowdown, including by cutting taxes. “When I look at Europe, especially, we need some new tools to relaunch our economy,” Macron said.
Trump disputed reports Sunday of friction with other G7 leaders, saying that he has been “treated beautifully” since he arrived. But moments later cracks emerged anew between Trump and his counterparts, after the French government said that it was agreed at Saturday’s opening dinner that Macron would deliver a message to Iran on behalf of the group.
Macron, in recent months, has tried to play intermediary between the U.S. and Iran, as tensions flare over Iran’s nuclear program and the Trump administration’s increasingly restrictive sanctions on that country.
But Trump disputed that he had signed off on any message. “No I haven’t discussed that,” he told reporters during a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “No I haven’t.”
Macron says he has no formal mandate to speak for the G-7 leaders in delivering a message to Iran, but said he would be able to address the issue in the context of what they agreed to during a dinner.
The annual G-7 summit has historically been used to highlight common ground among the world’s leading democracies. But in a bid to work around Trump’s impulsiveness, Macron has eschewed plans for a formal joint statement from this gathering.
AP writer Kevin Freking contributed from Washington.