As coronavirus cases in the US surge, President Donald Trump isn’t focused just on those statistics, administration officials say, but is also watching another set of numbers: exports to China.
The President gets regular briefings on agriculture sales to China and monitors those figures almost as closely as his White House pandemic team tracks statistics on the coronavirus, which had surpassed more than 121,000 cases and more than 2,000 deaths in the US by Saturday.
Publicly, Trump is downplaying the importance of trade during the global pandemic. Describing a Thursday night phone call with President Xi Jinping about the coronavirus, the President said, “This whole invisible enemy has taken over the world. Nobody cares about trade.”
But behind closed doors, White House officials say, Trump continues to emphasize farm product sales to China, even as he grapples with the most significant crisis of his presidency and a looming presidential campaign. His focus on the issue reflects his increasing concern about protecting America’s economic health — a central plank in his reelection campaign — as well as public health.
It is also deepening the dissonance between the messages Trump and his most senior Cabinet officials are sending.
Trump’s top trade negotiators had priorities that differed from the President’s during trade talks with China prior to the signing of a Phase One deal in January, several sources familiar with the discussions told CNN.
Now, while some administration officials blame Beijing for the coronavirus outbreak, and after Trump himself linked China to the virus, the President has adopted a noticeably softer tone, weighing criticism of the Communist Party against the importance of trade negotiations between the two countries.
That link was on display last week during a coronavirus task force briefing, when the President was asked whether Beijing bears responsibility for the outbreak that originated within its borders. While Cabinet members like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have spoken of a coming time for “recriminations,” Trump responded by talking about exports to China.
“I was told by our great secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, that China’s been buying a lot of our farm product. And I’m looking at different pricing, but China has, despite all of this … been buying our agricultural product,” he told reporters.
Administrations officials say there’s concern in the White House that the pandemic may lead China to back out of promises made in the Phase One trade deal to purchase $80 billion in US farm and seafood product over two years.
Chinese purchases of American pork, corn and other products are crucial to farmers in traditionally Republican states the President wants to win in November’s election — states where farmers have already been hit hard by Trump’s tariffs on China. Boosting agriculture sales is also key to Trump’s campaign promises about shifting the trade deficit with China as well.
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