Trump later clarified that the calls had occurred as recently as Sunday evening. Other administration officials were more circumspect, and it wasn’t clear how substantive any interaction had been. “There were discussions that went back and forth, let’s leave it at that,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters.
The comments were similar to ones Trump has made for more than a year, and his public optimism has been repeatedly dashed. But he insists that this time is different. He said the new talks “were much more meaningful than at any time.”
At a closing news conference, the president seized on comments by Chinese Vice Premier Liu He at a business forum in Chongqing on Monday as evidence that Beijing remains willing to talk.
“China is willing to resolve problems calmly through consultation and resolutely opposes the escalation of the trade war,” Liu said, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. “Any escalation will run against the interests of the people of China, the United States and the whole world.”
Though Chinese officials have made similar comments for months, Trump described Liu’s statement as “a little bit different” and said it was significant because of his high title, which the president mistakenly described as “vice chairman.”
Michael Pillsbury of the Hudson Institute, who advises the president on China strategy, said administration officials in recent weeks had detected a shift in Chinese thinking.
Chinese experts on the United States now think the president has a better chance of reelection than they once thought and see the administration as more unified around the hard-line stance favored by Peter Navarro, a White House trade specialist, Pillsbury said.
“There’s been a slight shift in the last two weeks,” Pillsbury said.
Still, this barely perceptible warming has yet to translate into any tangible negotiating progress. Administration officials continue to look in vain for signs that Beijing will agree to rewrite Chinese laws governing core issues in the trade dispute, Pillsbury said.
And no date has been set for the next round of negotiations, which were once anticipated for Washington next month.
Trump told reporters on Monday that Chinese officials want to make a deal to escape the trade war’s effects. The tariffs he has imposed on Chinese goods are costing China 3 million jobs as foreign manufacturers move their factories to other countries, the president added.
Three days after he called Chinese President Xi Jinping a U.S. “enemy,” the president labeled him a “great leader” and “a brilliant man.”
Trump was unapologetic amid concerns — including those expressed by French President Emmanuel Macron — that his unpredictable shifts in rhetoric and policies are hurting the global economy.
“Sorry — it’s the way I negotiate,” the president said. “It’s done very well for me over the years.”
Trump’s comments came as he is under growing pressure to convince voters, business leaders, and his foreign counterparts that his adversarial trade approach will ultimately work.
The U.S. economy appears to be slowing, domestic manufacturing has weakened and U.S. businesses have halted many decisions while they wait to see how Trump’s trade deals turn out. Foreign leaders, meanwhile, have become increasingly nervous that trade wars launched by Trump could knock numerous countries into a recession.
Trump boasted on Sunday and Monday that he had reached a trade deal with Japan, only to have his claims called into question when Japanese officials described the status of the talks.
And Chinese officials didn’t confirm the major progress Trump had cited.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he was “not aware” of any such phone calls with Trump.
“Regarding the phone call in the weekend, I am not aware of that,” he told a news briefing on Monday afternoon.
However, he reiterated that China wanted the trade dispute to be resolved through dialogue.
“We hope the U.S. can return to reason as soon as possible, and create conditions for consultations based on mutual respect,” Geng said.
Trump has made a flurry of comments about at least four different trade negotiations he is trying to broker, and the comments are frequently conflicting and imprecise.
Sitting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday, Trump said a trade deal was “done in principle” between the two countries. He said the deal would mean “billions and billions” of dollars in new trade for U.S. companies and that it would lead to huge new purchases of U.S.-produced corn.
He repeated his claims about the Japanese trade deal on Monday morning and complained that it hadn’t received enough positive news coverage.
But shortly after his Monday comments, Japanese officials held a briefing and told a different story. They said there had been progress but there were still unresolved issues and that a final deal wasn’t assured.
“We are not calling it an agreement in principle,” said Takeshi Osuga, press secretary for Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We are calling it a convergence of views on the core elements. There is more work left to be done by the bureaucrats than just legal scrubbing.”
Trump also said he is trying to broker a trade deal with France or he might level tariffs on French wine. He promised British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that they would sign a giant trade pact but gave no details or a schedule for progress.
His comments on China and trade are constantly shifting. On Friday, he suggested that Xi was one of the biggest enemies of the United States. On Monday, Trump was effusively praising Xi as a leader and dealmaker.
Complicating matters, Trump has frequently said pending trade talks are finished when they are not. He has said in public that his approach is successful, but many of the talks keep running into complications and falter.
Trump has upended the traditional international trade regime, threatening to withdraw from long-standing pacts, insisting on bilateral trade deals, and arguing that the United States has been ripped off for decades because of weak “free-trade” deals that cost U.S. jobs.
On Monday, he seemed acutely aware of his growing critics, including Democrats and Republicans, who have alleged that Trump’s playbook isn’t working and is doing more to damage the U.S. economy than help. He said, for example, that he had grown the U.S. economy so much, and inflicted so much damage on the Chinese economy, that he has proven his critics wrong.
“All these clowns that are sitting on television that have been running this country for many years that have been taken to the cleaners by China, they are all sitting there saying, ‘I don’t think the president is negotiating properly,’ ” Trump said. “I don’t know what they are talking about. I have great respect for the fact that China called; they want to make a deal.”
Trump’s dismissal of past trade pacts has proven popular with many of his supporters, particularly blue-collar workers in the Midwest. Even many Democrats and labor groups have been sharply critical of past trade pacts, giving Trump an opening to lure more supporters, but so far his attempts to rewrite trade rules have only had mixed success.
He has revised a trade deal with South Korea and made changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement, but that change is still pending before Congress. He has tried to pressure Japan and Europe into different negotiations, but the terms of those discussions appear to be much smaller than originally envisioned. As he gets close to the election next year, Trump is under growing pressure to deliver results.
Democrats have attacked Trump for his uneven approach of dialing up threats or reversing them without any notice.
He has imposed tariffs on more than $500 billion in Chinese imports, though some of the penalties don’t go into effect until later this year, and this has in turn driven up costs for U.S. consumers. The stock market has fallen sharply based on some of his tactics, particularly in August, and this has led Trump to make changes on the fly, delaying some penalties or intensifying rhetoric as a way to show resolve.
On Saturday, his mixed message was the focus of the global summit here, as he both expressed a willingness to de-escalate tensions with China and then — hours later — said he wished he had fought even harder.
By Monday, Trump was back in dealmaker mode, expressing confidence that all these efforts would ultimately lead China to reach an agreement. For more than a year, Trump has insisted that China needs to make major structural changes in their practices, particularly related to intellectual property, government subsidies and currency.
He has also pushed Beijing to purchase billions of dollars in U.S. farm products, something his advisers hope will give him a political boost domestically.
It wasn’t clear precisely why Trump thinks a deal with China is close. He has made such statements before, only to attack Beijing days or even hours later.
“I think we’re going to have a deal because now we are dealing on proper terms,” he said. “They understand and we understand.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted Takeshi Osuga, press secretary for Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as saying there was a “conference of views” between his country and the United States. Osuga said there was a “convergence of views.”
Anna Fifield in Beijing contributed to this report.