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Trump’s hard line approach appears to soften in meetings with world leaders

President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un June 30 in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea and briefly crossed into North Korea. (Video: Reuters)

President Trump entered his meeting with President Xi Jinping over the weekend promising to take a tough approach on trade negotiations and pressure his Chinese counterpart into a sweeping deal.

But the meeting did not produce an agreement — and Trump’s stance seemed to only soften as he announced he was relaxing limits on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei and delaying new tariffs on Chinese goods in hopes of restarting trade talks with Beijing.

“We discussed a lot of things, and we’re right back on track,” Trump said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Trump’s meetings with Xi and other leaders at the Group of 20 economic summit suggest that despite his promise to use negotiating savvy and personal relationships to extract concessions from rivals or uncooperative allies, he often leaves one-on-one sessions with fellow world leaders without firm agreements in hand.

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met June 28 at a Group of 20 bilateral meeting in Osaka, Japan, and laughed about dealing with "fake news." (Video: Reuters)

Trump emerged from his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin with no specific public commitments, although both nations had pledged in principle beforehand to explore a new arms control pact. Despite concerns over Turkey’s plan to purchase Russian defense systems, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Trump told him the United States would not punish his government with sanctions over the decision.

And while Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un following the G-20 summit appeared to provide the North Korean leader with a propaganda victory to tout back home, the president did not publicly secure more than a commitment to resume nuclear talks that have so far yielded no breakthroughs.

“In the case of Putin, Erdogan, and others, I don’t see him pushing that hard. He pushes harder with allies than with adversaries,” said Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “In some cases, even with North Korea or Iran, it’s not clear there’s any willingness to follow through — more bluster than anything else.”

Trump and his aides have scorned the system of routine diplomatic dialogues that characterized previous Republican and Democratic administrations, calling them little more than a forum for leaders of foreign countries, particularly China, to make airy promises they don’t keep.

The president has also dismissed criticism that he is failing to make big deals, arguing his patience and relationship building will pay off for the country.

“It was great being with Chairman Kim Jong Un of North Korea this weekend. We had a great meeting, he looked really well and very healthy — I look forward to seeing him again soon,” Trump tweeted Monday afternoon. “In the meantime, our teams will be meeting to work on some solutions to very long term and persistent problems. No rush, but I am sure we will ultimately get there!”

Trump’s stance toward China is perhaps proving to be the biggest test of his negotiating abilities, and his approach to his Osaka meeting with Xi showcased the blend of tough talk, flattery and concessions that have marked his presidency to date.

After weeks of buildup and threats of further tariffs if the high-stakes meeting with Xi didn’t go well, Trump apparently dropped the tough stance once the doors closed.

The objective was to revive stalled trade talks. Those negotiations began late last year over a steak dinner at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, where Trump agreed to defer further tariffs for 90 days while U.S. and Chinese negotiators sought a comprehensive trade settlement.

But when March 1 came and went without an agreement, Trump again pulled back from imposing the tariffs he had threatened, betting instead on additional talks.

That dialogue collapsed in early May, after U.S. officials said the Chinese government reneged on terms it had accepted earlier.

An angry Trump responded by more than doubling tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports. And days later, the Commerce Department put Huawei, one of China’s most prominent companies, on a blacklist that barred them from buying computer chips and other American components.

In the weeks preceding the G-20 summit, the president insisted the onus was on China to give ground. “China is going to make a deal because they’re going to have to make a deal,” he told reporters on June 10, alluding to Beijing’s slowing economy.

But when the leaders met Saturday, the president lavished praise on Xi, whose authoritarian rule includes detention camps in Xinjiang holding more than 1 million people. Trump called him “one of the great leaders in 200 years.”

The two men agreed to revive the moribund trade talks but resolved no major disputes. The same sticking points that brought them to an impasse in May — terms for enforcement of any deal and a schedule for lifting U.S. tariffs — remain. Trump said Monday that talks have “already begun,” though it is not clear what he meant.

Trump also gave Xi an important concession, allowing Huawei to continue buying from American suppliers. Trump said China in return had agreed to make major new purchases of U.S. farm products “almost immediately.” But the Chinese government did not confirm those plans.

“On balance, China did get more out of Osaka than the U.S. The president agreed not to proceed on the $300 billion in tariffs and gave China vague flexibility on Huawei,” Wendy Cutler, a veteran U.S. trade negotiator, said in an interview. “It’s also not clear that they’re going to return to the text they walked away from when talks fell apart.”

Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University and Washington Post contributor, said Trump’s interaction with Xi fits a pattern.

“When the other side stands firm, he’ll back down from the apocalyptic threats and say, ‘I’m in no rush.’ ” Drezner said. “He’s giving the impression that he’s still in charge.”

Trump’s decision on Huawei carries political risk inside a Republican Party that is in Trump’s political grip but rarely in lockstep with his diplomatic strategy.

Many top Republican lawmakers — although wary of the president’s protectionist stance on trade — have rallied around his populist stance on China in recent years and have shown frustration with his latest move to ease tensions.

Over the weekend, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) tweeted, “We need less Huawei, not more Huawei.” Her comments echoed several other Republicans, such as Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.). Banks called the news “extremely troubling” and wondered why Trump is “surrendering.”

“It didn’t make much sense to me, because if we’re treating them as a national security threat, we shouldn’t deal with them, period,” Banks said in an interview.

Banks said opponents of the president on Huawei will not back off and may seek new legislation.

He does see some potential upside from Trump’s latest negotiation.

“I’m glad he’s back at the table with China. That’s important to farmers in northeast Indiana, and it’s necessary for economies like my district to move forward,” Banks said. “He will be judged by that and the deal he negotiates with Xi.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Trump ally who was with the president at his reelection kickoff rally last month, has warned the administration that if the president “in fact bargained away the recent restrictions on Huawei, then we will have to get those restrictions put back in place through legislation.” And, Rubio added, it would “pass with a large veto-proof majority.”

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow sought to reassure Republicans, saying Sunday on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” that “we understand the huge risks regarding Huawei.”

Trump’s approach to China has been starkly different from that of his predecessors, reflecting his personal interest in trade and his willingness to flout convention.

“The Trump administration style is very much a top-down style. There’s almost no interagency process on this or any other big trade issue,” said Warren Maruyama, former general counsel in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. “All big decisions are made in the president’s office with a handful of key advisers.”

Some Trump supporters see a strategy in his unpredictable negotiating.

Former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who now organizes efforts to counter the global rise of China, said Trump’s handling of China should not yet be judged as a concession.

“We have arrived at an inflection point that should give the president leverage. You have to wait and watch what happens with the details of the executive order. For now, Xi just showed his cards, in terms of signaling how central Huawei is to China,” Bannon said in an interview. “Xi panicked and showed Trump how he sees Huawei as the main thing for China, the future of the merger between technology and data.”

Tom Donilon, a White House national security adviser for former president Barack Obama, said Trump’s diplomacy with Xi is part of “a fairly wide gulf between the rhetoric and some of the theatrical nature of the conduct of foreign policy and the actual result.”

“The president seems to put a very high premium on personal interaction and has a belief that foreign leaders are subject to charm offensives, and that’s just not the case,” said Donilon, now with BlackRock Investment Institute. “At the end of the day, a negotiation like this will come down to each side’s assessment of their national interest.”

Haass said Trump’s unconventional approach has yielded occasional progress, including Mexican officials’ recent agreement to do more to help reduce the flow of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“But it all comes at a big price. You might call it short-term gain but long-term pain for the United States,” he said. “It alienates friends, and the public dimension of it frequently makes it more difficult, not less, for others to compromise.”