BIARRITZ, France — It began with a rare admission from President Trump.
“I have second thoughts about everything,” he said, answering repeated questions from reporters about whether he was concerned that his escalating trade war with China had gone too far.
His comments, which came during a bilateral meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the Group of Seven summit here, were initially seen as a sign Trump was softening his approach just two days after he ratcheted up his rhetoric toward Beijing and said he wanted U.S. companies to begin pulling out of China.
In the ensuing hours, administration officials launched a full-throttled effort to reframe the president’s words — and maybe more important change the cable TV chyrons — and try to turn them from an admission of vulnerability to a statement of strength.
“The president responded in the affirmative — because he regrets not raising the tariffs higher,” press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement four hours after Trump’s initial comment, even though he had also praised China and said that talks were going well during his back-and-forth with reporters earlier in the day.
National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow portrayed the president’s comment not so much as being misinterpreted, but as the result of a misunderstanding over what was being asked amid the hustle and bustle of the press scrum.
“He didn’t quite hear the question this morning,” Kudlow told reporters, even though the question was asked three times.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in television interviews brushed past questions about what specifically the president said to declare that he was unwavering in his commitment to the trade war with China.
“He has no second thoughts, no second thoughts,” Mnuchin said, contradicting the president, who said earlier that he did.
The fallout from Trump’s morning remarks here were another example of how his off-the-cuff style of speaking, vacillating policy positions and desire to bend facts to his liking can wreak havoc on an almost daily basis even during what are supposed to be carefully orchestrated diplomatic events.
The president’s aides were not the only ones who felt the need to clarify or contradict Trump during the G-7 summit — several fellow leaders stepped in at times during the day, often gently, to make clear they were not agreeing with a point made by Trump.
The president indicated that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, with whom Trump is eager to strike a nuclear deal, had not broken “an agreement” by repeatedly conducting missile tests in recent weeks that have U.S. allies in Asia growing nervous. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, sitting in the chair beside him, said otherwise.
“Our position is very clear that the launch of short-range ballistic missiles by North Korea clearly violates the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Abe said, a view shared by U.S. experts.
Trump said he understood why Abe “feels” that way but continued to defend a man he calls a friend, the dictator of North Korea.
“We’re in the world of missiles, folks, whether you like it or not,” Trump said. Abe said he hoped that North Korea would not continue the tests.
Earlier in the morning, Trump said that allies supported his trade fight with China, even though other leaders have repeatedly urged him to de-escalate tensions with Beijing.
“I haven’t heard that at all,” he said when asked if other G-7 participants were pressuring him to scale back his trade war with China. “I think they respect the trade war. It has to happen. . . . So, the answer is, nobody has told me that, and nobody would tell me that.”
From his vantage point across the long table, Johnson expressed a different opinion minutes later, even as he carefully maneuvered not to offend Trump. “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 said.
World leaders said overwhelmingly that they opposed Russia rejoining the summit, even though Trump has repeatedly pushed for the country to return. Speaking Sunday morning, Trump said he secured some support in a contentious discussion at a dinner Saturday night. “I could, but I don’t think that’s necessary,” he said, when asked to name who agreed with him. No one else publicly backed up the assertion.
The most attention Sunday was focused on the president’s “second thoughts,” or lack thereof. The exchange, over his breakfast with Johnson, went like this, according to the White House official transcript:
Reporter: “Mr. President, any second thoughts on escalating the trade war with China?”
Trump: “Yeah, sure, why not?”
Reporter. “Second thoughts? Yes?”
Trump: “Might as well. Might as well.”
So it went a third time. “You have second thoughts about escalating the war with China?” a reporter asked.
Trump: “I have second thoughts about everything.”
Some of the words, as they are often are with Trump, were ambiguous. What does “might as well” mean with regard to “second thoughts?”
The president shook financial markets Friday when he responded to new Chinese tariffs by calling on U.S. companies to leave the country and then later issuing new tariffs of his own.
Many in his administration have quietly urged him to let talks proceed instead of ratcheting up pressure — and have tried to present a rosier-than-reality view to the president of ongoing negotiations, according to people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private conversations. Aides say Trump closely watches the markets and is pushing to get more help for farmers who support him but are hurt by the tariffs, even as he publicly says tariffs do not hurt the United States.
Trump’s remarks dominated the news Sunday, in part because they seemed to be a rare admission of self doubt or a mistake by Trump, who rarely concedes any such thing. After he recently attacked one of his supporters at a rally for being overweight, mistaking him for a protester, White House aides made clear that he called the man to thank him for his support but that he did not apologize.
Once Trump and team saw the news coverage of his remarks, they sprang into action, with Grisham saying there were “greatly misinterpreted” and Mnuchin and Kudlow driving about 30 minutes to a beachfront area, where they defended the president in morning TV interviews and highlighted what they described as an unprecedented day of success for the president.
“I was in that meeting. There were a lot of people yelling. I think it was somewhat, at least I found it somewhat hard to hear,” Mnuchin said.
He said additional tariffs were not being considered, even though Grisham in her statement said the president’s “second thoughts” related to his desire to increase the trade penalties. One senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, said Trump originally did want tougher tariffs, but it was unclear whether that’s what he meant Sunday morning.
A reporter asked Mnuchin if he was there to “clean up” Trump’s comments. The treasury secretary said that Trump had been clear and that it wasn’t necessary.
“I think we’re not cleaning up anything,” Mnuchin said.