Trump trade chief changes terminology after president contradicts him

President TrumpDonald John TrumpSteele Dossier sub-source was subject of FBI counterintelligence probe Pelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' Trump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance MORE's top trade negotiator agreed Friday to modify the terminology he uses about a trade agreement with China after the president contradicted him in an Oval Office meeting.

The debate between Trump and U.S. Trade Representative Robert LighthizerRobert (Bob) Emmet LighthizerWhiskey, workers and friends caught in the trade dispute crossfire GOP senator warns quick vote on new NAFTA would be 'huge mistake' Pelosi casts doubt on USMCA deal in 2019 MORE over the meaning of a so-called memorandum of understanding, or MOU, played out in front of cameras.

Trump, Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOn The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline Vulnerable Democrats tell Pelosi COVID-19 compromise 'essential' Pelosi asks panels to draft new COVID-19 relief measure MORE were among those in attendance for a televised discussion with a Chinese trade delegation about ways to try to end an economic feud with Beijing.


The discussion revolved around how long memorandums of understanding would last in a trade deal. MOUs have been drafted on issues such as agriculture, currency and intellectual property as a broader agreement is hashed out.

Trump told reporters they would “be very short term. I don’t like MOUs because they don’t mean anything. To me, they don’t mean anything.”

“An MOU is a binding agreement between two people,” Lighthizer responded.

Turning to members of the news media assembled in the Oval Office, he continued, “It’s detailed. It covers everything in great detail. It’s a legal term. It’s a contract.”

“By the way I disagree,” Trump fired back. “We’re doing a memorandum of understanding that will be put into a final contract, I assume. But to me, the final contract is really the thing Bob, and I think you mean that too, is really the thing that means something. A memorandum of understanding is exactly that, it’s a memorandum of what our understanding is.”

“The real question is, Bob … how long will it take to put that into a final binding contract?”

Lighthizer quickly adopted a new term after the pushback from the president.

“From now on, we’re not using the word ‘memorandum of understanding' anymore,” Lighthizer said. “We’re going to use the term ‘trade agreement’ … We’re never going to use MOU again.”

Chinese Vice Premier Liu He laughed as the exchange carried on.

Trump has shown personal interest in the phrasing and presentation of various trade deals and proposals throughout his tenure.

He persuaded Canada and Mexico last year to rename a revised trade agreement the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement instead of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The president also reportedly wanted to call the 2017 GOP tax-cut law the "Cut Cut Cut Act," though it was ultimately branded as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

“The Trump administration originally chose MOUs because no truly binding agreement can be made on the exchange rate or large future purchases of corn, much less technology coercion China denies has ever happened,” Derek Scissors, a China expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told Bloomberg News

“If the administration switches to calling it a binding trade agreement, members of Congress will want to vote on it. If they don’t get to, this looks exactly like Obama not wanting Congress to vote on the Iran nuclear deal.”

The Oval Office discussion Friday came as Trump said he is considering a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping next month to finalize a trade deal between the U.S. and China that would avoid additional tariffs. 

--This report was updated on Feb. 24 at 10:41 a.m.