BIARRITZ, France — President Trump on Sunday for the first time expressed regret that his trade war with China had spiraled into an international quagmire, answering “yes” when a reporter asked if he regretted the way things had played out.
Asked if he was rethinking the way things had escalated into severe economic penalties between the two countries, Trump responded “Yeah, sure why not. Might as well. Might as well. I have second thoughts about everything.”
In recent days, China has slapped new tariffs on U.S. goods, and Trump responded by jacking up tariff rates on more than $500 billion in Chinese products. These actions have rattled investors and stoked fears that a prolonged standoff could lead to a global recession.
But Trump showed no willingness to back down, saying “it has to happen.” He accused China of unfair trade practices that he said had to be addressed through tough U.S. measures, no matter the cost.
“I think they want to make a deal much more than I do,” Trump said before a breakfast with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Trump claimed negotiations with China were ongoing, but a few days ago he suggested that Chinese leader Xi Jinping was an “enemy” of the United States.
In brief remarks, Johnson seemed to actually take issue with Trump’s tactics — while also showing his fear of alienating the U.S. leader.
“Just to register the faint, sheeplike note of our view on the trade war,” Johnson said, “we think that on the whole the U.K. has profited massively in the last 200 years from free trade.”
Britain has long been a free trade superpower, and British diplomats complain as bitterly as their French and German peers about Trump’s tactics on China. But Johnson, who is mired in negotiations to pull his country out of the European Union, desperately wants a trade deal with Trump to bolster his own prospects at home.
It was a rare moment of a foreign leader challenging Trump’s tactics while sitting across the table from the U.S. president, delivered in the gentlest of forms.
Trump and Johnson are in France for the Group of Seven summit, an annual gathering of world leaders where they typically discuss pressing issues. So far, leaders appear far apart on Trump’s approach to trade, but the American president has complained about the press coverage of his meetings so far, painting his interactions as very successful and cordial.
“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!” he wrote on Twitter.
This was one of two Twitter posts in which Trump claimed that the strength of the U.S. economy was the subject of multiple conversations here. Johnson on Sunday praised the U.S. economy, but there has been little other evidence of leaders praising Trump’s comments.
At their first joint meeting — a dinner of regional Basque specialties — leaders had “constructive discussions” about Amazonian deforestation and Iran, according to a senior European official. But the conversation turned “rough and tumble” when it turned to Trump’s desire to bring Russia back into the group next year.
Russia was kicked out in 2014 after it invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.
The other G-7 leaders have been deeply opposed to Trump’s effort to bring Russian President Vladimir Putin back to their table, saying it would reward bad behavior and give a green light to the annexation and ongoing war in eastern Ukraine.
Over dinner, Trump spent some time bashing former president Barack Obama about the decision to kick out Russia, repeating his public statements that Putin had only been kicked out because he outsmarted Obama, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.
Sunday was set to be a pivotal day for each of the leaders, as they wade into thorny discussions about the faltering global economy.
After the breakfast between Trump and Johnson, leaders are also scheduled to hold a roundtable about the economy, which will give them a concrete opportunity to air their concerns.
Trump has at times boasted that the U.S. economy is performing much better than other countries, and he has said there is a global recession that is harming most of the major nations except for the United States. Other leaders have countered that Trump’s trade war is causing global supply chains to seize up, and there is evidence the U.S. economy is slowing much more quickly than anticipated.
Just in the past week, Trump has swung wildly in his approach to the economy, saying he is contemplating tax cuts, then saying tax cuts aren’t needed, and then on Saturday saying he planned to pursue tax cuts in 2021.
Trump’s attempt to create a counter narrative at the summit came as other world leaders, in public statements, described the global dynamic as being in a state of crisis. French President Emmanuel Macron caught Trump off guard when during a lunch together he said they needed to discuss ways to address growing tensions over trade.
Johnson has also said he will push Trump to de-escalate trade tensions, and European Council President Donald Tusk questioned Trump’s political motives for dramatically escalating his trade disputes with China in recent days.
The glowing reviews Trump has given the summit so far also conflict with assessments from some of his own aides, who have expressed fury that French officials had steered the subject matter of the summit into areas that Trump has little interest. But other administration officials have said privately that the meetings are going well and have struck a positive tone.
The G-7 countries include the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Canada. The gatherings are typically capped off with a joint statement, known as a communique, that is meant to reflect the leaders’ shared values and goals.
Last year’s summit, hosted by Canada, was a spectacular failure, as Trump attempted to withdraw from the communique after the meeting ended because he felt personally slighted by comments from Canada’s leader, Justin Trudeau.
This year, officials have openly floated the possibility that there won’t even be a communique, trying to downplay expectations at a time when global relations are only worsening.
Trump has disrupted numerous international summits and has appeared at ease by putting other leaders on edge. His “America First” slogan drives a U.S.-centric agenda that White House officials have said is one reason the president remains very popular with his supporters.
But Trump is under growing pressure domestically, particularly from farmers and other business leaders, to explain his approach to trade. Trump has imposed a series of harsh economic penalties against Chinese imports, and China has retaliated at almost every step. Relations worsened markedly last week, and Trump vowed more punitive measures were coming.
Other leaders at the G-7 have also complained about China’s tactics but they have questioned Trump’s decision to keep ratcheting up tariffs in a way that drives up costs for global consumers.
Early Sunday morning, Trump remarked on his initial meetings at the summit by saying “Progress being made!”
It wasn’t immediately clear what issue he believed the White House was making progress on.