Trump, at G7 Summit, Admits ‘Second Thoughts’ About China Trade Threats

President Trump backed off a threat to escalate his trade war with China, admitting to “second thoughts,” just two days after he ordered American companies out of the country in Twitter statements that sent global markets reeling.

In comments to reporters ahead of a breakfast with Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, the president said that he had “no plans right now” to use the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977 to force businesses to leave China as punishment for the country’s trade practices.

“Well, I have the right to. If I want, I could declare a national emergency,” Mr. Trump said at the beginning of a day of consultations with world leaders at the Group of 7 summit.

But he added: “Actually we’re getting along very well with China right now. We’re talking. I think they want to make a deal much more than I do.”

The tone from Mr. Trump represented an abrupt turn from his more ominous and threatening statements, including a tweet that American companies were “hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China.”

In a series of later tweets, Mr. Trump responded to China’s trade retaliations by further escalating tariffs on Chinese goods.

In France on Sunday, when Mr. Trump was asked whether he was having second thoughts about his aggressive posture with China, he said, “Yeah, sure, why not?” But he offered no further explanation about what policy positions he might reconsider.

“Might as well. Might as well,” he said. “I have second thoughts about everything.”

Amid fears of an impending recession that could jeopardize his re-election next year, President Trump’s focus at the G7 meeting will be economic, with particular attention on his clash with China.

But this weekend, Mr. Trump’s advisers have accused President Emmanuel Macron of France, the host of the meeting, of focusing too much on “politically correct bromides” and “niche issues” like global warming and inequality, rather than economic growth.

They also complained about a tax France recently imposed on tech giants like Facebook and Google.

Mr. Trump, who has waged an escalating trade war with Beijing, has talked about cutting off trade with China and forcing American companies to stop operating there — extraordinary threats that have sent shock waves through world markets.

In briefing reporters before his trip, senior administration officials cited barriers to trade and foreign investment, and “currency stability” as being among the concerns he will raise at the summit meeting — concerns that, for Mr. Trump, inevitably lead back to China.

The administration officials specifically cited China’s industrial subsidies, direct government involvement in directing businesses, rules requiring companies to surrender technological secrets in order to enter the Chinese market, and intellectual property theft

They also cited reform of the World Trade Organization, a recent target of the president’s ire. In particular, he has criticized its trade rules that favor developing countries, which include China, though it now has the world’s second-largest economy.

President Trump kicked off what is likely to be a tense day at the summit meeting with some jovial backslapping on Sunday as he met Boris Johnson, the new British prime minister, for breakfast and declared “he’s the right man for the job.”

“He’s on message there,” quipped Johnson over scrambled eggs and veal sausage in this beachside resort town in the south of France.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Johnson have each engaged in bluster and confrontation with the other leaders gathered in Biarritz. But they both largely held their tongue Sunday morning, with Mr. Trump insisting that none of his counterparts had questioned his China trade war at an opening dinner Saturday night.

Perhaps, but Mr. Johnson interrupted the president to do just that, praising Mr. Trump for his handling of the American economy but questioning the wisdom of embracing protectionism, tariffs and global confrontation over trade.

“We’re in favor of trade peace on the whole,” Mr. Johnson said in a mild-mannered rebuke to Mr. Trump’s aggressive trade posture with allies and adversaries alike.

“We think that on the whole, the U.K. has profited massively in the last 200 years from free trade and that’s what we want to see,” he said, adding, “we don’t like tariffs on the whole.”

Mr. Trump offered a quick retort to the prime minister, asking how Britain was doing “the last three years,” a reference to its recent economic stagnation.

After President Trump’s angry, protocol-breaking treatment of the last G7 summit meeting, the organizers this time have tried to take fewer chances.

At the June 2018 meeting in Canada, Mr. Trump clashed with the other leaders in assailing trade agreements, defending protectionist tariffs and arguing that Russia, which was expelled from the group after seizing territory from Ukraine in 2014, should be allowed back in.

Mr. Trump left that meeting early, and refused to sign a final communiqué when it made reference to the “rules-based international order.” Aboard his plane, he criticized the host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for comments at the closing news conference, calling him “meek and mild” and “dishonest and weak.”

President Emmanuel Macron of France, the host of this year’s meeting in Biarritz, who had a one-on-one lunch with Mr. Trump on Saturday, decided early on that there would be no final communiqué.

“No one reads the communiqués,” which are drafted in advance, Mr. Macron told reporters last week. Reaching agreement on the wording constrains debate, and he wants it to flow freely, he said.

In a series of early-morning tweets from his hotel room on Sunday, Mr. Trump blamed the “the Fake and Disgusting News” for predicting that this year’s gathering would end in disaster.

In fact, he insisted, “we are having very good meetings, the Leaders are getting along very well.”

On trade and other matters, Mr. Trump has upended the assumption that the member countries — highly developed democracies with some of the world’s largest economies — would have broadly compatible views.

In his first G7 meeting as Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson will try to strike a tricky balance between Mr. Trump and European leaders like Mr. Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

With Britain scheduled to leave the European Union on Oct. 31, Mr. Johnson says he wants to reach a withdrawal agreement by then; his counterparts doubt there is enough time, and are increasingly resigned to what they consider the worst outcome, Brexit without a deal.

Mr. Trump, who regards Mr. Johnson as a friend and even an acolyte, has accused the European Union of unfair trade practices and has cheered Brexit.

Speaking to reporters before their breakfast meeting on Sunday, Mr. Trump called Mr. Johnson, who became prime minister last month, “the right man for the job” — a double-edged sword, considering the American president’s unpopularity in Britain.

“We will have a very big trade deal with the U.K.” after it leaves the European Union, Mr. Trump said. What that would mean is anyone’s guess, and it may still be years away, but the prospect is important to Mr. Johnson, who has sold Brexit largely on the idea of beneficial new trade agreements.

The president would also like Mr. Johnson to join him in pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which the other signatories — France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union — still support.

Mr. Johnson will meet in Biarritz with Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council to discuss Brexit.

“I still hope that Prime Minister Johnson will not like to go down in history as Mr. No Deal,” Mr. Tusk said.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, who is recovering from emergency surgery, will not attend. Mr. Juncker is famous for his acerbity, but it is unclear whether anyone sees metaphorical meaning in the removal of his gall bladder, a receptacle for bile.

After a year of sometimes violent Yellow Vest protests, and accusations of police brutality, the French authorities, wanting to take no chances with the summit meeting, have deployed more than 13,000 security personnel to Biarritz.

Meetings among world leaders tend to attract crowds of demonstrators, and the handling of security is widely seen as a test for the French interior minister, Christophe Castaner, and for President Emmanuel Macron.

“We will not tolerate any excesses,” Mr. Castaner said last week as he reviewed the security arrangements in Biarritz. “If they occur, we will respond.”

There were some clashes on Saturday, with security forces using water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters.

Ordinarily, Biarritz is a small, elegant seaside resort known for good surfing, but it now resembles a nearly impenetrable armed camp.

The local airport and train stations have been shut down for the duration of the summit, there is a no-fly zone overhead, boats are banned or heavily restricted along parts of the coastline, and several roads leading to the heart of the town have been closed. Cars are barred from the beachfront area where world leaders are staying, and access to the city center is strictly controlled, even for local residents.

August is peak tourist season, and store and restaurant owners worry that business will suffer, though French officials insist that the legions of officials and journalists descending on Biarritz will make up for any loss of tourists. As the summit meeting approached, local merchants witnessed the unusual sights of empty cafés, quiet streets and calm beaches.

Reporting was contributed by Michael Shear and Peter Baker from Biarritz, France; Steven Erlanger from Brussels; Aurelien Breeden from Paris; and Richard Pérez-Peña and Stephen Castle from London.