WASHINGTON — In the middle of his crowded dinner in Buenos Aires with President Xi Jinping of China, President Trump leaned across the table, pointed to Robert Lighthizer, the United States trade representative whose skepticism of China runs deep, and declared, “That’s my negotiator!”
He then turned to Peter Navarro, his even more hawkish trade adviser, adding, “And that’s my tough guy!” according to aides with knowledge of the exchange.
Now, with talks between China and the United States set to begin this week in Beijing, Mr. Lighthizer, aided by Mr. Navarro, faces the assignment of a lifetime: redefining the trade relationship between the world’s two largest economies by Mr. Trump’s March 2 deadline to reach an agreement.
And he must do it in a way that tilts the balance of power toward the United States. His approach will have significant ramifications for American companies, workers and consumers whose fortunes, whether Mr. Trump likes it or not, are increasingly tied to China.
First, however, Mr. Lighthizer will need to keep a mercurial president from wavering in the face of queasy financial markets, which have suffered their steepest annual decline since 2008. Despite his declaration that trade wars are “easy to win” and his recent boast that he is a “Tariff Man,” Mr. Trump is increasingly eager to reach a deal that will help calm the markets, which he views as a political electrocardiogram of his presidency.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly told his advisers that Mr. Xi is someone with whom he can cut a big deal, according to people who have spoken with the president. On Saturday, Mr. Trump called Mr. Xi to discuss the status of talks, tweeting afterward that good progress was being made. “Deal is moving along very well,” Mr. Trump said.
The administration has tried to force China to change its ways with stiff tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese products, restrictions on Chinese investment in the United States and threats of additional levies on another $267 billion worth of goods. China has responded with its own tit-for-tat tariffs on American goods. But over a steak dinner during the Group of 20 summit meeting in Argentina, Mr. Xi and Mr. Trump agreed to a 90-day truce and to work toward an agreement that Mr. Trump said could lead to “one of the largest deals ever made.”
Mr. Lighthizer — whose top deputy will meet with Chinese officials this week ahead of more high-level talks in February — has played down any differences with Mr. Trump and views his role as ultimately executing the directive of his boss. But the trade representative, who declined to be interviewed, has told friends and associates that he is intent on preventing the president from being talked into accepting “empty promises” like temporary increases in soybean or beef purchases.
Mr. Lighthizer, 71, is pushing for substantive changes, such as forcing China to end its practice of requiring American companies to hand over valuable technology as a condition of doing business there. But after 40 years of dealing with China and watching it dangle promises that do not materialize, Mr. Lighthizer remains deeply skeptical of Beijing and has warned Mr. Trump that the United States may need to exert more pressure through additional tariffs in order to win true concessions.
When Mr. Lighthizer senses that anyone — even Mr. Trump — might be going a little soft on China, he opens a paper-clipped manila folder he totes around and brandishes a single-page, easy-reading chart that lists decades of failed trade negotiations with Beijing, according to administration officials.
“Bob’s attitude toward China is very simple. He wants them to surrender,” said William A. Reinsch, a former federal trade official who met him three decades ago when Mr. Lighthizer was a young aide for former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. “His negotiating strategy is simple too. He basically gives them a list of things he wants them to do and says, ‘Fix it now.’”
Mr. Trump’s selection of Mr. Lighthizer last month to lead the talks initially spooked markets, which viewed the China skeptic’s appointment as an ominous sign. It also annoyed Chinese officials, who had been talking with the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, a more moderate voice on trade and the primary point of contact for Liu He, China’s top trade negotiator. Mr. Mnuchin has urged the president to avoid a protracted trade war, even if that entails reaching an interim agreement that leaves some issues unresolved.
Mr. Mnuchin, who attended the G-20 dinner, helped Mr. Trump craft an upbeat assessment declaring the Buenos Aires meeting “highly successful” in the presidential limousine back to the airport, according to a senior administration official.
The disparate views among Mr. Trump’s top trade advisers have prompted sparring — both publicly and behind the scenes.
During an Oval Office meeting with the trade team the fall of 2017, Mr. Lighthizer accused Mr. Mnuchin and Gary D. Cohn, the former National Economic Council director, of bad-mouthing him to free-trade Republican senators.
The argument grew so heated that the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, quickly pulled the combatants into the nearby Roosevelt Room and away from the president, where the argument raged on for a few more minutes, according to two witnesses.
Emily Davis, a spokeswoman for the United States trade representative, disputed the account.
Mr. Lighthizer has since worked to increase his own face time with Mr. Trump. He has joked to colleagues that he has more influence with Mr. Trump during winter months because he is able to hitch a ride on Air Force One during the president’s flights down to Mar-a-Lago, which is several miles from Mr. Lighthizer’s own $2.3 million waterfront condo in Palm Beach, Fla.
He used that access to argue to Mr. Trump that the United States has never had more leverage to extract structural reforms on intellectual property, forced transfer of technology from American companies and cybercrime. But while Mr. Trump has jumped at the chance to claim victory in changing China’s ways, experts say that what Mr. Lighthizer is demanding would require significant shifts in how Beijing’s central government and its manufacturing sector coordinate their activities, and that might simply not be possible in the short term.
“Good luck with that,” Mr. Scissors said.
Those who know Mr. Lighthizer say he will try to force concessions through a combination of pressure tactics, like tariffs, and public condemnation. Mr. Lighthizer — who described his own negotiating style as “knowing where the leverage is” during a 1984 interview — typically presents few specific demands during initial talks while publicly bashing efforts by the other side.
He used that approach during recent talks with Canada and Mexico to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement, criticizing foreign counterparts as intransigent and characterizing complaints by American businesses as pure greed.
Mr. Lighthizer’s unsparing view of China comes, in part, from his childhood in Ashtabula, Ohio, an industrial and shipping town on the Great Lakes hit by the offshoring of steel and chemical production. For much of his career, Mr. Lighthizer was a lonely protectionist voice in a Republican Party dominated by free traders, alternating between jobs in government and a lucrative private law career representing large American corporations like United States Steel in trade cases against China.
Mr. Lighthizer found his way into Mr. Trump’s orbit through his work in the steel industry, where he gained prominence by filing lawsuits accusing Japan and China of dumping metals into the United States, in violation of trade laws. In 2011, Mr. Lighthizer caught Mr. Trump’s eye with an opinion piece in The Washington Times, in which he defended Mr. Trump’s approach to China as consistent with conservative ideology and compared the future president to Republican icons like Ronald Reagan.
Taciturn in public and self-deprecating in private, Mr. Lighthizer sees himself as a serious player on the world stage: Two recent guests to Mr. Lighthizer’s Georgetown townhouse were greeted by the stern visage of their host staring down at them from an oil portrait on the wall.
The trade adviser is guarded around Mr. Trump, often waiting until the end of meetings to make his points and quietly nudging the president away from actions he views as counterproductive, current and former officials said. That was the case in mid-2017 when he cautioned the president against withdrawing unilaterally from the World Trade Organization, adding for emphasis, “And I hate the W.T.O. as much as anybody.”
He does not always get his way. In the wake of a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada this fall, Mr. Lighthizer urged Mr. Trump to consider easing steel and aluminum tariffs on those countries and replacing them with less burdensome quotas. Mr. Trump rejected his plan, according to negotiators from all three countries.
A poker-faced Mr. Lighthizer broke the news to his Mexican and Canadian counterparts by declaring the proposal was inoperative, one of the officials said.
The president also ignored Mr. Lighthizer’s advice in early December when he announced that he intended to begin the six-month process of withdrawing the United States from Nafta in order to pressure House Democrats into passing the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
That threat undermined months of quiet negotiations between Mr. Lighthizer, labor groups and Democrats like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California to try to win their support for the new trade deal. Mr. Trump has yet to follow through on his threat, and Mr. Lighthizer continues trying to work with Democrats to get the new trade deal approved.
“Bob is trying to provide stability and focus in a completely chaotic environment,” Mr. Brown said. “I can’t speak for Bob, but I am certain he is frustrated. How could you not be frustrated as the U.S. trade representative for a president who knows what his gut thinks but hasn’t put much of his brains into trade?”
As Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted Friday:
“@realDonaldTrump is now set for war on 3 fronts: political vs Bob Mueller, economic vs China/others on trade, and actual vs. Iran and/or North Korea. This is the most perilous moment in modern American history — and it has been largely brought about by ourselves, not by events.”
.. Some have viewed President Trump’s recent moves as a sign of rising self-assuredness in the man.
I see quite the opposite. I see a man growing increasingly irascible as his sense of desperation surges. The world is closing in on Trump and he is in an existential fight for his own survival.
This is precisely what makes him so dangerous: As the personal threat to him grows, his threat to the country grows. The power of the American presidency is an awesome power, and Trump will harness and deploy it all as guard and guarantee against his own demise.
.. “Aides said there was no grand strategy to the president’s actions, and that he got up each morning this week not knowing what he would do. Much as he did as a New York businessman at Trump Tower, Mr. Trump watched television, reacted to what he saw on television and then reacted to the reaction.”
.. This is all gut and instinct. This is all reactionary emoting by a man of poor character, one addicted to affirmation. He desperately needs to be the king-of-every-hill he sees in the mirror: He was the ladies’ man, businessman, smartest man, toughest man. There was nothing beyond him, and he didn’t have to follow the rules, he only had to follow his instincts.
Trump presents an insurmountable challenge to an intellectual approach to politics because his decisions aren’t based on any coherent body of ideas.
.. Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon devoted considerable resources to promoting Trumpist candidates who supposedly shared President Trump’s worldview and parroted his rhetoric, including anti-globalism, economic nationalism, and crude insults of “establishment” politicians. Those schemes largely came to naught.
.. The intellectual effort to craft or divine a coherent Trumpist ideology didn’t fare much better. Just over a year ago, Julius Krein launched a new journal called American Affairs to “give the Trump movement some intellectual heft,”
.. On the left, there’s an enormous investment in the idea that Trump isn’t a break with conservatism but the apotheosis of it. This is a defensible, or at least understandable, claim if you believe conservatism has always been an intellectually vacuous bundle of racial and cultural resentments.
.. by his own admission, he doesn’t consult any serious and coherent body of ideas for his decisions. He trusts his instincts.
.. Trump has said countless times that he thinks his gut is a better guide than the brains of his advisers. He routinely argues that the presidents and policymakers who came before him were all fools and weaklings. That’s narcissism, not ideology, talking.
.. Even the “ideas” that he has championed consistently — despite countervailing evidence and expertise — are grounded not in arguments but in instincts.
He dislikes regulations because, as a businessman, they got in his way.
He dislikes trade because he has a childish, narrow understanding of what “winning” means. Even the “ideas” that he has championed consistently — despite countervailing evidence and expertise — are grounded not in arguments but in instincts. He dislikes regulations because, as a businessman, they got in his way. He dislikes trade because he has a childish, narrow understanding of what “winning” means.
.. The president’s attack on his attorney general’s conduct as “disgraceful” makes no political, legal, or ideological sense, but it is utterly predictable as an expression of Trump’s view that loyalty to Trump should trump everything else.
.. Likewise, his blather about skipping due process to “take the guns” was politically bizarre
.. And, of course, his decision to promote and protect his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is purely psychological. Giving Kushner the responsibility to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for all time seems like the premise of a sitcom
.. many of Trump’s biggest fans stick by him, mirroring Trump’s mode of thinking and discovering ever more extravagant ways to explain or rationalize the president’s behavior. (Krein’s abandonment of Trump was an exception to the rule.)
When Trump attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University tweeted his support, floating the idea that Sessions was an anti-Trump deep cover operative who endorsed Trump to undermine his presidency from within.
.. If this infection becomes a pandemic — a cult of personality — one could fairly call Trumpism a movement. But psychology would still be the best way to understand it.
The genius in the White House has always believed that what makes him special is his ability to get things done without going through the steps others must take.
In school, he bragged that he’d do well without cracking a book. As a young real estate developer, his junior executives recalled, he skipped the studying and winged his way through meetings with politicians, bankers and union bosses. And as a novice politician, he scoffed at the notion that he might suffer from any lack of experience or knowledge.
.. doubled down on his belief that smashing conventions is the path to success but underscored his lifelong conviction that he wins when he’s the center of attention.
.. “To go into those campaign rallies with just a few notes and connect with people he wasn’t at all like, that takes a certain genius. His genius is he’ll say anything to connect with people. He won by telling the rally crowds that the people who didn’t like them also didn’t like him.”
.. familiar tactics: a bold, even brazen, drive to put on a show and make himself the star.
.. he tweeted that he did use “tough” language — a long-standing point of pride for the president, whose political ascent was fueled by his argument that, as a billionaire, he is liberated to say what some other Americans only think.
.. “He needed to be stroked all the time and told how smart he was,”
.. The way we got things done was to approach him with an idea and make him think it was his. It was so easy.”
.. “Donald was always a forest person; he never knew anything about the trees. He knew concrete was brought in on trucks, but he really didn’t know how to run a project. What he had was street smarts — good instincts about people.”
.. he has always encouraged people around him to view him as someone who could see things that others could not.
.. “He means, okay, he didn’t hit the brains lottery, but he’s brilliant and cunning in the way he operates. He’s amazing at taking the temperature of the room and knowing how to appease everyone. You want that kind of instinct in your quarterbacks, in your generals. It’s not what we’ve ever thought of as what makes a great president, but he’s never going to be the guy who makes great speeches. This is who he is.”.. Being something of a genius was central to Trump’s self-image.. Everyone around him learned to cater to that — even his father.. In the first major newspaper profile of Trump, in the New York Times in 1976, his father, Fred Trump, describes his son as “the smartest person I know.”.. Throughout his life, Trump has believed that his instincts and street smarts positioned him to succeed where others might struggle... His father often told Trump that “you are a king,” instructing him to “be a killer.”.. Fred Trump was a student of Dale Carnegie.. and an acolyte of Norman Vincent Peale .. who preached a gospel of positive thinking... “I know in my gut,” he said in an interview last year. “I know in 30 seconds what the right move is.”.. “He can’t collaborate with anybody because he doesn’t listen to anybody,”.. “He doesn’t trust anybody, except his family. That’s why [his former wife] Ivana was involved in everything and why now his children are too.”.. also believed he had something more: a genius for showmanship, a knack for surrounding himself with the trappings of success, thereby creating the perception that he was uniquely capable of big, bold action... Genius and ego were both essential elements of success on a grand scale, Trump said.. every great person, including Jesus and Mother Teresa, found the path to success via ego:.. In Trump’s vocabulary, “genius” is perhaps the highest praise, and it refers to a street-level ability to get things done... Trump often referred to his lawyer and early mentor Roy Cohn as “a total genius” or a “political genius,” even if he was also “a lousy lawyer.”.. Trump explained in one of his books that his own true “genius” was for public relations: Rather than spending money on advertising, he said, he put his efforts toward winning news coverage of himself as a “genius.”.. Trump has also had moments of extreme self-doubt. Biographer Harry Hurt described a period around 1990 when, as his marriage to Ivana Trump was breaking up, he occasionally spoke about suicide