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It’s been amateur hour on China negotiations

The Trump administration is supposed to be negotiating with China. But right now it more often seems to be negotiating with itself.

China knows what it wants out of these bilateral negotiations; the White House plainly does not. Trump officials have offered shifting and at times contradictory demands and objectives, further complicated by administration infighting, public turf wars, reversals, retractions and clumsy errors.

In short: Over here on Team USA, it’s been amateur hour.

On Friday, for instance, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told reporters that China had offered to reduce the U.S. trade deficit by “at least” $200 billion.

That would be an astonishing figure, as it would comprise more than half of our entire goods deficit with China.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman flatly denied that China had offered this number. And the next day, when the White House released its joint communique with China on the negotiations, the statement mentioned only “a consensus on taking effective measures to substantially reduce the United States trade deficit in goods with China.”

No actual figures were included, certainly not $200 billion.

So how did Kudlow respond when confronted with these developments?

On ABC’s “This Week,” he denied that he’d ever touted an agreement on the $200 billion figure, saying that it was just “a number that interests the president a lot.

This is hardly the only time the administration has been confused about the facts, or its own position.

On Sunday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer offered somewhat mixed messages on what was expected to happen with tariffs going forward. Mnuchin said the United States was “putting the trade war on hold”; Lighthizer emphasized that tariffs remain on the table.

In Beijing earlier this month, divisions between the free-trader and protectionist wings of the U.S. delegation exploded, with the White House trade adviser Peter Navarro reportedly shouting and cursing at Mnuchin after being excluded from a meeting.

Trump himself is not exactly helping to make the administration’s message more coherent.

A month ago, the Commerce Department imposed harsh penalties on Chinese telecom giant ZTE, which U.S. officials determined had not complied with a previous settlement over illicit sales to Iran and North Korea. Trump’s FBI director,


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