World News

Can Trade Threats Be Turned to Truce? Trump Meets Chinese and German Leaders

Posted December 1, 2018 2:23 p.m. EST

President Donald Trump, center, walks past President Vladimir Putin of Russia, left, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, right, while lining up with world leaders for a group photo at the G-20 summit, at the InterContinental hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Nov. 30, 2018. At the Group of 20 gathering in Buenos Aires, Trump declined to meet with his two favorite strongmen, postponed meeting an ally and was preoccupied with the Russia investigation. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — President Donald Trump neared the end of an attenuated visit to the Group of 20 summit here Saturday, sitting down with the leaders of China and Germany, two countries he has threatened with trade wars over what he calls their unfair commercial practices.

“We have a tremendous trade imbalance, but we’re going to get that straightened out,” Trump said before a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. “We all understand each other.”

Merkel said the two leaders would also discuss Ukraine, where a clash between Russian and Ukrainian ships last week caused tensions to flare between the two neighbors. It was cited by Trump as the reason he canceled a meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the meeting in Buenos Aires.

Later Saturday, Trump was scheduled to have dinner with President Xi Jinping of China to discuss ways to avoid a new round of tariffs that some analysts fear could provoke a full-fledged economic Cold War between the world’s two largest economies.

“We’ll be talking about a thing called trade,” Trump told reporters. “It’s a very important meeting.”

China is seeking to prevent Trump from following through on a plan to raise tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese goods to 25 percent, from 10 percent, on Jan. 1. In return, U.S. officials said, the Chinese were likely to offer to increase their purchases of U.S. soybeans and natural gas.

Neither a dramatic breakthrough nor an acrimonious breakdown was expected at the dinner. The most likely outcome, officials said, was an agreement to keep talking — a truce not unlike the one that Trump agreed to recently with the European Union.

Trump’s single-minded focus on trade with Germany has put Merkel in an awkward spot because Germany, as a member of the European Union, cannot negotiate separately on trade issues with the United States. Regardless, the president insisted he was making progress with Germany and other European countries.

Trump said he canceled a news conference planned for Saturday afternoon out of deference to the family of President George H.W. Bush, who died a day earlier in Houston.

“The fact that we lost a president who truly was a wonderful person, a wonderful man, a great man — it really puts a damper on it, to be honest with you,” Trump said.

He turned to Merkel and asked her to share a recollection of a visit she made to the White House with then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, when Bush was president. She referred to him as “one of the fathers of the German unification,” and said, “we will never forget that.”

Even before Bush’s death, the meeting was shadowed by Trump’s legal troubles back home — his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his dealings with Russia on behalf of Trump — and by his truncated schedule while in Buenos Aires.

This was the kind of diplomatic conclave at which Bush, a globe-trotting foreign-policy president, would have thrived. Trump’s less comfortable experience here attested to how the American role in the world has changed during the Trump presidency.

Trump also skipped a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, another strongman whom he has drawn close but who has fallen into disrepute. The CIA has concluded the crown prince played a role in the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October.

Trump’s stubborn defense of Crown Prince Mohammed has caused tensions with Turkey, which has shared an audio recording of the attack on Khashoggi with U.S. officials and demanded a fuller accounting from the Saudis of what happened.

On Saturday, Trump met with Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but the White House closed the session to even the brief picture-taking opportunity that usually accompanies these meetings.

At a dinner for the leaders Friday night, the White House said Trump spoke informally with Putin. There were photos of the president and first lady Melania Trump seated at the long table, separated from Putin by Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan.