Trump leans into deal-maker reputation

President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Lawmakers dismiss Chinese retaliatory threat to US tech MORE is leaning into his deal-maker persona, seeking to project confidence about the economy ahead of his 2020 reelection bid. 

At the Group of Seven (G-7) summit’s conclusion on Monday in Biarritz, France, Trump’s efforts were on full display.

The president spoke optimistically about the prospect of a deal to end the trade war with China, while championing a separate tentative trade agreement with Japan.

Trump promised a robust free trade agreement with a post-Brexit United Kingdom and spoke confidently about future nuclear agreements with North Korea and Iran. He also assailed the Obama administration for its “bad deal” with Tehran. 

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The performance was classic Trump and carried echoes of his first presidential campaign, when he ran on his experience as a celebrity businessman and real estate broker. 

Republicans say Trump’s message, particularly when it comes to China, is meant to counter speculation about the prospect of a recession while fending off uncertainty spawned by a trade war that has resulted in dramatic stock market gyrations.

“I think he is very in tune with the economy’s response to the trade war and people around him realize that if the country’s in a recession next fall because of the trade war, he has no chance of getting reelected,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant. 

“I think he’s doubling down on his brand,” Conant continued. “It’s less strategic and more in an effort to get some headlines coming out of a tough week.” 

Trump said early Monday that China wants to “get back to the table” on trade negotiations to “make a deal.” 

He pointed to phone conversations between U.S. and Chinese officials that he said happened overnight Sunday — a narrative that a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman did not confirm.

Trump also referenced recent comments from a top Chinese official who said Beijing is willing to settle the dispute through “calm” negotiations. 

“I think we’re going to make a deal with China and I think we’re probably, eventually we’re going to make a deal with Iran, too,” Trump told reporters at a press conference capping the three-day G-7 summit.

Trump’s remarks reflected a stark shift in rhetoric on Beijing.

On Friday, Trump said he would raise tariffs on Chinese goods in response to new reciprocal tariffs on U.S. exports while suggesting that Chinese President Xi Jinping was an “enemy” of the United States. 

On Sunday, Trump indicated he had regrets over escalating the trade war before the White House pulled those remarks back and said Trump had regretted not imposing higher tariffs on Beijing.

On Monday, Trump was back to talking nice with Beijing.

Trump’s softer approach seemed to stabilize markets on Monday, with stocks rebounding from a sharp decline after both sides traded fresh barbs on Friday. 

But there is broad skepticism that Trump will reach a deal with China that fundamentally changes the way Beijing operates vis-a-vis trade, and a continued failure to ink a deal would inevitably undercut Trump’s messages of positivity. 

Securing a deal with China could be important to Trump, who has seen polls in recent days that suggest a host of Democratic rivals might be able to defeat him next year.

Economists say the prospect of a recession in 2020 has grown, and a trade pact with China might be one of the few things Trump could accomplish that would bolster economic confidence and even stave off a slowdown.

“Since [Franklin D. Roosevelt], every single president who has avoided recession has been reelected,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “As long as he’s optimistic about getting deals done and getting accomplishments, getting things done, that’s a good message for the American electorate.” 

Trump’s optimism on foreign policy deal-making is hardly limited to China. Trump promised a “very big trade deal” with the United Kingdom after it withdraws from the European Union and announced a trade agreement “in principle” with Japan involving agriculture and digital products on the sidelines of the G-7. 

Trump also touted his relationship with North Korean Leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnBolton rips Trump administration's move to block UN meeting on North Korea South Korea: North tested rocket engine The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - Democrats to release articles of impeachment today MORE amid ongoing negotiations about denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s recent short-range missile tests have perturbed U.S. officials and raised questions about the viability of ongoing talks, with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial GOP senator blocks bill aimed at preventing Russia election meddling Russian diplomat says election meddling wasn't discussed at White House, contradicting Trump MORE acknowledging last week that negations have lagged. 

In a surprise, Trump also said he would be willing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani under the “right” circumstances, which could pave the way for a new nuclear agreement with Tehran after Trump withdrew from the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action last year despite objections from U.S. allies. 

Critics say Trump’s accomplishments during his first term haven’t backed up his rhetoric on being a deal-maker and that his moves have been more about politics than advancing American interests on the global stage. 

“His desire for deal-making is really about going after the shiny objects and build a political narrative,” said Thomas Wright, a foreign policy expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who argued Trump hasn’t done the tedious diplomatic work required of substantive foreign policy efforts. 

But proponents argue the president, who has a penchant for off-the-cuff remarks and snap decisions, has taken a realistic approach to deal-brokering while using sanctions and other tools to advance U.S. foreign policy interests. 

Jim Carafano, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation and a member of Trump’s transition team, pointed to the North Korea talks as evidence of Trump’s patient and realistic approach to foreign policy negotiations. 

“It’s not like he threw his hands up after the first meeting with Kim,” Carafano said. “He is consistent in looking at a negotiation as an option.” 

“You do a deal when there is a good deal to be had,” he continued. “None of our foreign policy has been contingent on getting a deal.”