Why you should care
Because the most important event of the weekend did not happen at the DMZ.
Nothing can quite compare to the way Donald Trump can command a room, a TV camera, a news cycle. The Democrats gave him a run for it last week, with two nights featuring 20 of their leading — and not-so-leading — lights slugging it out on a debate stage. There were soaring rhetorical heights, nasty put-downs, breathtaking blunders and a lot of canned lines. Oh, and Marianne Williamson.
So Trump just went ahead and left the globe agog by cracking wise with Russian President Vladimir Putin about “fake news” and interfering in the 2020 election, despite credible intelligence that Putin’s minions have killed journalists and boosted Trump in 2016. There was the cozy breakfast with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, despite the intelligence bread crumbs linking bin Salman to the murder of a Washington Post columnist.
Then he went and shook hands with Kim Jong Un, symbolically crossing the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas to become the first U.S. president to step foot — even if only for a powerful photo-op — in the Communist North. Trump also vowed to restart stalled North Korean nuclear talks.
Trump is focused on 2020; China is focused on 2050.
TV and Twitter lapped it all up. It was brilliant fodder for the permanent Trump screamfest. And it left the most important moment of Trump’s whirlwind Asia visit around the G-20 summit flying shockingly under the radar — a climb-down of trade tensions with China.
While it’s fair to call him President Bluff on any number of issues — striking Iran, closing the Mexican border, “infrastructure week” — Trump has actually followed through on his China threats. It’s been nearly a year since he first imposed China-specific tariffs, and the squeeze has escalated. The U.S. has now slapped tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports, meaning that American companies — and, yes, consumers — pay more for those goods. The administration also effectively cut off dealings with Chinese technology giant Huawei over national security concerns.
But when Trump emerged Saturday morning from a much-anticipated meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he was playing peacemaker: There would be no new tariffs, and the U.S. would open the door to easing up on Huawei. In response, China would buy “a tremendous amount” of U.S. agricultural products.
The details, as always, are fuzzy. And, Trump being Trump, it could all shift quickly. But it appears the president walked up to the edge of a truly damaging trade war and didn’t like what he saw. Trump is focused on 2020; China is focused on 2050.
The U.S. stock market continues to rise, and no doubt will get a boost from this truce. But the people Trump appears most worried about are farmers, mostly in the Midwest. Trump issued two bailouts to try to offset the effects of Chinese trade retaliation on U.S. soybean farmers. The second-biggest soybean producing state in the U.S. is Iowa, a state that Barack Obama won twice and Trump took in 2016. The third is Minnesota, where Trump had his narrowest loss in 2016 and spies an opportunity for a pickup.
In May, Beijing canceled a shipment of more than 3,000 metric tons of U.S. pork in a trade war escalation, even as China’s domestic hog production continues to be ravaged by African swine fever. The three biggest hog producing states are Iowa, Minnesota and North Carolina (another purple state).
If rural America doesn’t stay solidly and fervently Trump country, he’s a one-term president.
China knows America’s electoral map as well as Russia does. And while Xi does have domestic political concerns, with economic pain rising during the course of the trade war, he’s not exactly debating potential challengers on MSNBC.
Trump’s trade crusade is not the typical left-right issue: Senators from Chuck Schumer to Marco Rubio are pushing a hard line. There are real concerns with how China squeezes U.S. companies on intellectual property and transfers of technology, and how much the state subsidizes its industrial giants.
China has not budged on those headline issues in the face of substantial hits to its economy and the threat of more. So Trump stepped back this week and did his best to spin it as a win.
At the very least, it’s not a loss. Which is more than several of those Democratic debaters can say.