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Trump finds himself on his heels and fumbling at G-7

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow on Aug. 25 defended President Trump's earlier remarks on the China trade war. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump is used to going to gatherings of world leaders and throwing his weight around — even if to no other end than making his counterparts squirm and cater to him.

But on Sunday, he found himself on his heels and fumbling throughout much of the first day of the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France.

While his trade war with China isn’t the subject of the meeting, it’s clearly one of the major subplots. With the implications for the global economy clear and increasingly ominous, the summit is not exactly the friendliest venue for Trump.

He began by creating his own problems. When asked whether he was having “second thoughts” about escalating the trade war, he responded in the affirmative. “Yeah, sure. Why not?” he said, adding: “I have second thoughts about everything.”

President Trump, at a G-7 breakfast with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Aug. 25, discussed the escalating trade war with China. (Video: AP)

Those comments were understandably interpreted as an unprecedented bit of trade-war uncertainty from Trump, so the White House quickly went into cleanup mode. Press secretary Stephanie Grisham assured that Trump’s only regret was not raising the tariffs on Chinese imports “higher.” Chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow, meanwhile, offered a somewhat different defense, saying Trump “didn’t quite hear the question.”

But Trump was actually asked that question three times by different reporters, and he allowed the premise each time. It’s possible he was just being flippant, but telegraphing any lack of resolve is hugely counterproductive in weighty matters such as a trade war, which is really a war of attrition. Given the news of recent weeks — including increasing signs of an economic downturn and a retreat from some of the planned tariffs — it was hardly far-fetched that Trump would have some trade war buyer’s remorse.

At the same news conference, Trump assured that world leaders were not pressuring him to get out of the trade war. Yet just moments later, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gently urged him to de-escalate in a rare face-to-face plea from a world leader to Trump.

“Look, I just want to say I congratulate the president on everything that the American economy is achieving. It’s fantastic to see that,” Johnson said. “But just to register the faint, sheeplike note of our view on the trade war: We’re in favor of trade peace on the whole, and dialing it down if we can.”

Johnson added: “We don’t like tariffs, on the whole.”

The significance of the faint plea wasn’t difficult to process; here was a man who spearheaded the Brexit effort — and one who has cozied up to Trump — who is now seeking a less confrontational course (“trade peace”) for U.S.-Chinese relations.

But Johnson wasn’t even the only one to gently contradict Trump, who appeared with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to announce a separate trade deal in what seemed to be a carefully crafted bit of counterprogramming. Details of the deal were scarce, after all, and Trump has attempted to divert attention from bad China trade war news before, including by hailing a similarly tentative trade deal with the European Union last summer.

Abe was willing to play along only so much, though. When Trump repeatedly urged him to talk about Japan buying “hundreds of millions of dollars of corn that’s there,” Abe downgraded it to “the potential purchase of American corn” and emphasized “this will be done by the Japanese private sector.” He added, “We still have some remaining work that has to be done at the working level.”

Then there was maybe the biggest news of the day: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s surprise appearance. Zarif reportedly came at the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron, and other world leaders were not given a heads-up. Trump didn’t seem to know what to make of the whole thing, offering a curt “no comment” when asked about it.

It was an unusual power move from the French president and would seem to risk angering the Trump administration, which in contrast to the French/European approach to try to salvage the Iran nuclear deal has sought to impose heavy sanctions on the Iranian regime. Among those sanctions are travel restrictions on Zarif himself. As The Washington Post reported, Zarif’s appearance was quickly seen as reinforcing how isolated the United States is in its approach to Iran.

Asked further, Trump offered only a muted response, saying, “We will do our own outreach [with Iran], but I can’t stop people from talking. If they want to talk, they can talk.”

His former United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, meanwhile, offered a more full-throated response, calling it “manipulative of Macron to do this and very insincere.” She added the hashtag #NotWhatFriendsDo.

Zarif’s arrival was the kind of provocative move that we’re more accustomed to seeing from Trump himself at such meetings; in this case, he found himself a spectator — a spectator surrounded by an increasing number of somewhat noncompliant fellow world leaders.