President Trump boasted in a fundraising speech Wednesday that he made up information in a meeting with the leader of a top U.S. ally, saying he insisted to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the United States runs a trade deficit with its neighbor to the north without knowing whether that was true.
“Trudeau came to see me. He’s a good guy, Justin. He said, ‘No, no, we have no trade deficit with you, we have none. Donald, please,’ ” Trump said, mimicking Trudeau, according to audio of the private event in Missouri obtained by The Washington Post. “Nice guy, good-looking guy, comes in — ‘Donald, we have no trade deficit.’ He’s very proud because everybody else, you know, we’re getting killed.
“... So, he’s proud. I said, ‘Wrong, Justin, you do.’ I didn’t even know. ... I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’ You know why? Because we’re so stupid. … And I thought they were smart. I said, ‘You’re wrong, Justin.’ He said, ‘Nope, we have no trade deficit.’ I said, ‘Well, in that case, I feel differently,’ I said, ‘but I don’t believe it.’ I sent one of our guys out, his guy, my guy, they went out, I said, ‘Check, because I can’t believe it.’
‘Well, sir, you’re actually right. We have no deficit, but that doesn’t include energy and timber. … And when you do, we lose $17 billion a year.’ It’s incredible.”
The Office of the United States Trade Representative says the United States has a trade surplus with Canada. It reports that in 2016, the United States exported $12.5 billion more in goods and services than it imported from Canada, leading to a trade surplus, not a deficit.
In response to this story, Trump on Thursday went on Twitter to reiterate his false assertion that the United States has a trade “deficit” with Canada and said it was other countries that refused to accept that such imbalances exist.
In his 30-minute speech to donors in Missouri, Trump made a blistering attack against major U.S. allies and global economies, accusing the European Union, China, Japan and South Korea of ripping off the United States for decades and pillaging the U.S. workforce. He also described the North American Free Trade Agreement as a disaster and heaped blame on the World Trade Organization for allowing other countries to box in the United States on trade.
Trump seemed to threaten to pull U.S. troops stationed in South Korea if he didn’t get what he wanted on trade with Seoul, an ally. He said that the country had gotten rich but that U.S. politicians never negotiated better deals. “We have a very big trade deficit with them, and we protect them,” Trump said. “We lose money on trade, and we lose money on the military. We have right now 32,000 soldiers on the border between North and South Korea. Let’s see what happens.”
“Our allies care about themselves,” he said. “They don’t care about us.”
Trump’s comments to donors that laid bare his approach to arguing trade facts with foreign leaders show how he might try to engage with other heads of state in the coming weeks. Trump has said he will impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports as soon as next week, a steep increase in duties that could affect some of the U.S. government’s biggest trading partners.
Trump said countries can request exemptions from these tariffs but only after direct negotiations with him. The audio from the fundraiser shows how difficult these discussions could prove.
The president was in Missouri to raise money for Josh Hawley, who is taking on Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) in November's midterm election. He called McCaskill “bad for Missouri and bad for the country.” But he barely spoke about Hawley. Instead, he talked about himself — bragging about his 2016 election win and lavishing praise on himself while ticking through a list of U.S. allies that he said are taking advantage of the United States.
The president did not mention his abrupt firing earlier this week of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by tweet, the personnel turmoil engulfing his administration, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign or reports of his alleged affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels — and his lawyer paying her to keep silent about the relationship.
Trump spoke as his White House tried to pick up the pieces after Democrats' apparent victory in a special election in a western Pennsylvania congressional district that Trump won by 20 points in 2016. Pollsters said the results showed how Trump was dragging down the Republican Party, but the president took none of the blame. He said the Republican candidate, Rick Saccone, would have lost by a wider margin without his support — Trump held a rally for Saccone over the weekend. And he said the Democrat, Conor Lamb, won the seat because he was “like Trump” but that Lamb would vote with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Trump also described for donors his decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the coming months through the prism of making history and besting his predecessors while lamenting his media coverage, questioning U.S. allies and labeling his presidency as “virgin territory.”
“They couldn’t have met” with Kim, he said, after mocking presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. “Nobody would have done what I did.”
“It was called appeasement: Please don’t do anything,” he said of other presidents.
“They say, ‘Maybe he’s not the one to negotiate,’ ” he said, mocking the voice of a news anchor. “He’s got very little knowledge of the Korean Peninsula. Maybe he’s not the one. ... Maybe we should send in the people that have been playing games and didn’t know what the hell they’ve been doing for 25 years.”
The through lines of Trump's meandering speech were simple: Trump was tougher than all the rest, and the United States was not going to be laughed at or taken advantage of.
He accused Japan of using gimmicks to deny U.S. auto companies access to its consumers, said South Korea was taking advantage of outdated trade rules even though its economy was strong and said China had single-handedly rebuilt itself on the back of its trade surplus with the United States.
"It's called the bowling ball test; do you know what that is? That's where they take a bowling ball from 20 feet up in the air and they drop it on the hood of the car," Trump said of Japan. "And if the hood dents, then the car doesn't qualify. Well, guess what, the roof dented a little bit, and they said, nope, this car doesn't qualify. It's horrible, the way we're treated. It's horrible." It was unclear what he was talking about.
Trump said he didn’t even want Japan to pay the tariffs but to build more automobiles in the United States, adding that Japan would do so if tariffs were imposed. There is no evidence of such a possibility as of now.
His comments were among his most protectionist to date and didn’t identify a single benefit the United States receives from its trading relationships.
The “free-trade globalists,” he said, are against his trade moves because “they’re worldly people, they have stuff on the other side.” Gary Cohn, the president’s top economic adviser, recently quit over the tariffs and was derisively labeled by his critics as a globalist.
Trump mocked other politicians for wanting to keep the North American Free Trade Agreement, calling Mexico “spoiled” and saying that Canada had outsmarted the United States. “The best deal is to terminate it and make a new deal,” he said.
Above all, he cast his presidency in historic terms, saying he was attracting so much media criticism because he was doing so well. He seemed fixated on his media coverage, even talking about a specific CNN segment with Erin Burnett.
He said the news media was criticizing him for “conceding” a meeting with Kim.
“They were afraid of being blown up. Then all of a sudden, they say, let’s not meet,” he said of reporters, referring to concerns that tensions between the United States and North Korea are increasing the chances of a military — and possibly nuclear — confrontation.
While Trump said some decry his rhetoric and think his bellicose and mercurial tendencies could lead the United States into a war, he explained why he taunted the North Korean president as “Little Rocket Man.” He said the South Koreans told him that Kim was agreeing to meet because of the tough U.S. sanctions and that they promised not to conduct any nuclear tests or missile launches until a meeting occurred. That comment could not be verified.
“He’s going to get us in a war,” he said, again mocking a news anchor. “You know what’s going to get us in a war is weakness.”
He said Republicans needed to run on their tax bill this year, but he was determined to not call it “tax reform,” as many other Republicans have done. He said Democrats would not appoint judges whom Republicans like while reversing tax cuts and taking away guns, an unproven claim.
He implicitly rebuked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for not changing the rules of the Senate to require only 51 votes to pass any legislation, saying more Republicans were needed because the current leadership would not act and no one could explain why the 60-vote status quo made sense.
Trump criticized judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, saying his presidency would reshape the judiciary and change courts such as that one. He said he planned to pick 145 judges and thanked Obama for leaving so many vacancies.
At the end of the day, the event, as it usually is with Trump, was about marketing. He said Republicans needed to run on tax cuts because they were very “popular.”
“Do me a favor: Don’t call it tax reform. It hasn’t worked in 45 years,” Trump said he told others. “You say you’re reforming taxes, that means taxes could go up.”
“I actually said, ‘Let’s call it the Tax Cut Cut Cut plan,’ ” Trump said. “I actually did.”
He added: “They thought it sounded a little hokey, so we called it the tax cut and jobs plan. I liked the first one better.”
This story has been updated.