President Trump gave mixed signals this week as to whether he would intervene and try to weaken the U.S. dollar, telling aides Tuesday he had ruled out the idea but telling reporters on Friday he was still open to it.
On Tuesday, Trump rejected a recommendation from senior adviser Peter Navarro that the United States should take steps to weaken the U.S. dollar to boost U.S. exports, people briefed on the exchange said. Trump said intervening could damage the U.S. economy and cause problems that would difficult to control, the people said.
But on Friday, Trump told reporters he had not ruled anything out. He said the strong U.S. dollar was making it harder for U.S. companies to boost exports, something he blamed in part on the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates last year.
“I could do that in two seconds if I want to,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office Friday afternoon. “I didn’t say I’m not going to do something.”
Trump’s comments came during a wide-ranging gaggle with reporters, in which he also predicted that Chinese officials would attempt to drag out trade negotiations until after the 2020 presidential election. He said Chinese officials would be hopeful he would lose the election and that they could cut a deal with a Democrat, who Trump said would not seek the same concessions he had long demanded.
“I think that China will probably say ‘let’s wait,’” Trump said. “’It’s 14, 15 months until the election. Let’s see if one of these people that give the United States away, lets see if one of them could possibly get elected.’”
His comments expressed little optimism about talks that are set to take place next week between some of his top aides and senior Chinese officials in Shanghai. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer are scheduled to convene next week in an effort to restart the on-again, off-again discussions that had begun last year.
“I don’t personally care that much,” Trump said of the outcome of the talks, “because we’re getting billions and billions of dollar” in tariffs on Chinese imports.
Trump’s comments on Friday were some of his most revealing in weeks into how he sees the economy. He touted the recent stock market rally but also complained that the Fed was holding back economic growth. The economy grew 2.1 percent in the from April through June of this year, slowing down from a brisk first quarter. Some White House officials are concerned that a weakening economy could hurt Trump’s chances of reelection this year, and Trump appeared to be cognizant of the approaching election, particularly when discussing the China negotiations.
Trump appeared more firm on Tuesday, when he cut off Navarro during a briefing and insisted that he would not seek to devalue the dollar as a way to boost competition with China.
A number of other senior White House advisers and Cabinet members were in the room during the exchange, which came as the White House was trying to find a way to revive trade talks with China.
Navarro had recommended that the Trump administration weaken the U.S. dollar by 10 percent to make U.S. goods less costly for foreign buyers. Trump has alleged that China and other countries have unfairly weakened their own currencies to boost exports to the United States, but he drew the line at the U.S. response during the Tuesday meeting, warning it could damage the economy.
Such discussions are very unusual, as White House officials typically stress the importance of a strong U.S. dollar and its prominence as the world’s dominant currency. But Trump and Navarro have both complained that China and other countries are gaming their currencies in a way that hurts U.S. companies and consumers, and it was unclear how — if at all — the White House might respond.
“China has devalued their currency and they are pumping money into their society their country like you wouldn’t believe,” Trump said Friday.
A number of Democrats and Republicans have accused China of intentionally weakening their currency to gain a trade advantage, but a number of Trump’s advisers have told him this is not the case.
CNBC reported last month that China’s currency had weakened to its lowest level of 2019, something White House officials have been watching closely as they try to boost U.S. exports.
If one country’s currency weakens against the U.S. dollar, it makes it cheaper for U.S. companies to buy that country’s products. But it makes it more expensive for that country to import U.S. products.
The Trump administration is searching for ways to boost the economy heading into the 2020 elections, and there are signs the economy could be weakening. Trump has pushed to keep oil costs and interest rates down, and he has cheered a recent surge in the stock market. But he has frequently bemoaned international currency markets, convinced it is hurting demand for U.S. products.
White House advisers are concerned because business investment contracted in the second quarter and that this could reflect a weaker economy going forward. They believe a strong economy will be key for Trump’s reelection bid next year.
There are several ways the White House could try to devalue the dollar, though any such step would be very controversial.
The Treasury Department could attempt to sell off some of the holdings in its Exchange Stabilization Fund, though its impact could be hard to predict. The Exchange Stabilization Fund is also seen as an emergency stash of funding the U.S. government could use if it runs out of cash.
White House officials could also attempt to “talk” the dollar down through public statements. The impact of this would also be difficult to control.
Trump has long complained that other countries unfairly manipulate their currencies and that this disadvantages the United States.
The Treasury Department routinely evaluates foreign countries and their currencies and has not labeled China or any other nation a “currency manipulator,” but Trump has appeared to not be convinced.
On June 11, Trump responded to a Bloomberg Opinion post about the large number of tourists in Europe by alleging it was due to the weak euro, which is the European Union’s currency.
“This is because the euro and other currencies are devalued against the dollar, putting the U.S. at a big disadvantage. The Fed Interest rate way too high, added to ridiculous quantitative tightening! They don’t have a clue!” Trump tweeted.
Bloomberg recently reported that White House officials were considering a way to weaken the dollar, but White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said Friday the idea had recently been ruled out.
“Just in the past week, we had a meeting with the president and the economic principles, and we have ruled out any currency intervention,” Kudlow said on CNBC. “So, I just don’t agree with your assertion. The steady, reliable, dependable dollar is attracting money from all over the world.
“And that, along with our incentive policies on taxes and regulations and our hope for trade barrier reduction, that’s bringing money to the United States in bundles. We are the hottest economy in the world, and I expect us to stay that way.”
Kudlow’s remarks to CNBC suggested that a final determination not to intervene in the dollar had been made, but Trump has shown a willingness to revisit ideas some advisers had thought was off the table. And in his remarks on Friday, he made clear that the option was still under consideration.