White House

White House scrambles to get Trump, Xi together for trade pact signing after Chile axes summit

President and aides are eager for another foreign policy win amid Dems’ impeachment probe

A shipping container is offloaded from a Hong Kong based CSCL East China Sea container ship at the Port of Oakland, Calif., earlier this year. Wildfires in Chile forced the cancellation of a summit where President Trump and Chinese President Xi had hoped to sign a trade pact. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images file photo)

Eager for another foreign policy win, White House officials are scrambling for a Plan B for President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to sign a “phase one” trade pact after Chile canceled an Asia-Pacific economic summit.

“We’re still working on it,” acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told CQ Roll Call as he exited the office of Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham, where West Wing aides have been discussing alternative plans.

Aides want to get Trump and Xi to a table to sign the incremental deal that could be followed by other “phases” after the U.S. president was ripped by Democrats and some national security experts for his handling of an announcement Sunday that U.S. military forces had conducted an operation in Syria that led to the death of Islamic State leader Abu al-Baghdadi.

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“Then when he in fact announces Baghdadi has been taken out, which is a very good thing, what does he say? He belittles the Kurds,” former Vice President Joe Biden, the 2020 Democratic presidential front-runner, said Monday night at a Florida fundraiser. “He says the first persons he called were [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, were Russians. That’s who he shared his data with. Who is going to share intelligence information with the United States of America going forward?”

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit was slated for mid-November in the South American country’s capital city of Santiago. But Chile’s government canceled it due to raging protests.

“We look forward to finalizing ‘phase one’ of the historic trade deal with China within the same time frame, and when we have an announcement, we’ll let you know,” White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary J. Hogan Gidley said in a statement. He also left open the possibility that Chile might find another location and revive the APEC meeting.

“This has been a very tough decision … but it is based on the wise principle of common sense,” Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said Wednesday.

“A president must always put his compatriots above all else,” he said. “Our main concern is reestablishing public order, our citizens’ safety and social peace along with pushing through a social agenda to respond to the main demands of our citizens.”

Trump and White House aides had counted on the APEC meeting and expected Trump-Xi signing to give the American leader a win amid House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry and increasing public support of the probe — and even his removal by the Senate.

The cancellation comes several weeks after Trump announced an interim trade pact with the Asian economic giant. The president on Oct. 11 dubbed it “phase one” of what he expects to be a multiple phase pact, but that amounted to another a reversal for Trump.

As recently as Sept. 20, the U.S. chief executive had said he opposed a small deal that covered only some of the issues the two countries have been discussing since he took office in January 2017.

“We’re looking for the big deal,” he said that day during a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

But just a few weeks later, Trump — eager for a win — agreed to just that.

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“It’s such a big deal that doing it in sections” makes more sense, Trump said on Oct. 10, signaling there could be two more “phases” of the pact.

A recent CNN-SSRS poll showed voters have warmed slightly to Trump’s handling of foreign trade matters since he announced what he said could be the first of two or three China agreements. That survey showed 43 percent of those polled approved of his trade policies, up from 39 percent a few weeks earlier. In the latest incarnation of that survey, 53 percent disapproved. The latter figure, notably, was only one percentage point lower than the last version of the same poll.

As White House officials scramble to find another place and time for Trump and Xi to sign the pact, Vice President Mike Pence on Monday accused leaders in Beijing of wanting “a different American president,” saying that amounts to the biggest verification that Trump’s trade policies are working. “But this administration will not stand down,” the VP warned during what his staff dubbed a major foreign policy speech in Washington.

Yet, even as Pence warned China on its trade practices and other aggressive acts, like its sometimes tough tactics in the seas around Asia, he said the Trump administration “does not seek confrontation with China” and seeks “practical cooperation.”

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