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?”
The first to go is expected to be the deputy national security adviser, Mira Ricardel, who has clashed with First Lady Melania Trump. Mr. Trump is also leaning toward the ouster of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who is a close ally of Mr. Kelly, White House officials said. The president has decided to replace Ms. Nielsen, but hasn’t finalized the timing, White House officials said, in part because there isn’t an obvious candidate to replace her.Mr. Trump has told aides that he is aware that forcing out Ms. Nielsen may result in Mr. Kelly quitting, administration officials said. Mr. Trump has told these aides that he is resigned to the possibility of Mr. Kelly leaving, and that he probably will replace Mr. Kelly with Nick Ayers, who is currently chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence... The president often games out multiple staffing scenarios with advisers, including months of talking about whether to replace Mr. Kelly. While those discussions often signal impending changes, that is not always the case.“This is how the president works,” one White House official said. “He’s doused a bunch of people in gasoline and he’s waiting for someone to light a match.”
.. A rift emerged after Mrs. Trump staff’s battled with Ms. Ricardel during the first lady’s trip to Africa last month over seating on the plane and requests to use National Security Council resources, according to people familiar with the matter. The first lady’s team also told Mr. Trump that they suspect Ms. Ricardel is behind some negative stories about Mrs. Trump and her staff.
The first lady’s office issued a statement on Tuesday calling for Ms. Ricardel to be dismissed. “It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House,” said Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Trump.
.. Late Tuesday, one White House official pushed back against the criticism but offered no assurances about Ms. Ricardel’s job security.
“Mira Ricardel is one of the highest ranking women in the Trump administration,” the official said. And she “has never met the first lady.”
Ms. Ricardel also repeatedly clashed with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his Pentagon team over staffing decisions and policy differences, according to people familiar with the feud... Mr. Trump also has soured on Kevin McAleenan, who is commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection
.. In recent days, Mr. Trump referred to Mr. Ayers in the present tense as his chief of staff, one White House official said. Mr. Trump has told officials he expects to offer Mr. Ayers the job when Mr. Kelly leaves
An argument last February between the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, and Corey Lewandowski, an informal adviser to President Trump, turned into a physical altercation that required Secret Service intervention just outside the Oval Office, according to a half-dozen people familiar with the events.
The episode, details of which have not been previously reported, is the latest illustration of the often chaotic atmosphere Mr. Trump is willing to tolerate in the White House as well as a reflection of the degree to which Mr. Kelly’s temper can be provoked.
The near brawl — during which Mr. Kelly grabbed Mr. Lewandowski by the collar and tried to have him ejected from the West Wing — came at a time when the chief of staff was facing uncertainty about how long Mr. Trump would keep him in his job. A guessing game over his departure has colored his tenure ever since.
Mr. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, was widely hailed as the lone grown-up who could corral a staff full of bombastic and competing personalities when he was appointed in summer 2017. But Mr. Kelly has shown little inclination to curb his own instinct for confrontation, from scuffling with a Chinese official during a visit to Beijing last year to last week’s profanity-laced shouting match with John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, after a meeting with the president.
.. Anthony Scaramucci, who has written a book about being Mr. Trump’s communications director for 11 days until Mr. Kelly fired him after the release of a recording of his own profanity-laced call with a reporter, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that Mr. Kelly had “hurt the morale inside the place.”
“And he’s hurt the president. And he has hissy fits,” Mr. Scaramucci said, adding that “he’s demonstrating his personality now the way he really is.”.. Mr. Kelly criticized Mr. Lewandowski to Mr. Trump for making so much money off the president in the form of his contract with the super PAC supporting the president’s re-election. Mr. Kelly also expressed his anger that Mr. Lewandowski had been criticizing him on television for his handling of the security clearance controversy related to Mr. Porter... The two then began arguing, with Mr. Lewandowski speaking loudly. Mr. Kelly grabbed Mr. Lewandowski by his collar, trying to push him against a wall, according to a person with direct knowledge of the episode.
Mr. Lewandowski did not get physical in response, according to multiple people familiar with the episode. But Secret Service agents were called in.
.. Mr. Kelly, who is called “the general” or “the chief” by his allies inside the West Wing, is widely seen as a diminished presence among the president’s advisers. Though Mr. Kelly has repeatedly said he expresses his honest opinions to Mr. Trump, he has shown little inclination or ability to curb some of the president’s impulses.
.. The president, for his part, has shown a certain reverence for men willing to engage in physical scuffles. Last fall, when Mr. Kelly was newly in his role, his willingness to engage angrily in meetings with Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who at the time was the national security adviser, thrilled Mr. Trump. The president, who did not like General McMaster, gleefully told people about the skirmishes between the two men for weeks, saying it showed how tough Mr. Kelly was, a person familiar with the discussions said.
.. And The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Mr. Kelly got into a physical altercation with a Chinese official trying to gain access the so-called nuclear football
.. “I think Trump has decided it’s really a bad marriage,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a history of White House chiefs of staff, “that he has decided to muddle through.”
President Trump so alarmed his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, during a discussion last January of the nuclear standoff with North Korea that an exasperated Mr. Mattis told colleagues “the president acted like — and had the understanding of — a ‘fifth or sixth grader.’”
At another moment, Mr. Trump’s aides became so worried about his judgment that Gary D. Cohn, then the chief economic adviser, took a letter from the president’s Oval Office desk authorizing the withdrawal of the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea. Mr. Trump, who had planned to sign the letter, never realized it was missing.
.. book by Bob Woodward that depicts the Trump White House as a byzantine, treacherous, often out-of-control operation — “crazytown,” in the words of the chief of staff, John F. Kelly — hostage to the whims of an impulsive, ill-informed and undisciplined president.
.. The White House, in a statement, dismissed “Fear” as “nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the president look bad.”
.. Mr. Woodward portrays Mr. Mattis as frequently derisive of the commander in chief, rattled by his judgment, and willing to slow-walk orders from him that he viewed as reckless.
.. Mr. Trump questioned Mr. Mattis about why the United States keeps a military presence on the Korean Peninsula. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mr. Mattis responded, according to Mr. Woodward.
.. In April 2017, after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria launched a chemical attack on his own people, Mr. Trump called Mr. Mattis and told him that he wanted the United States to assassinate Mr. Assad. “Let’s go in,” the president said, adding a string of expletives.
The defense secretary hung up and told one of his aides: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” At his direction, the Pentagon prepared options for an airstrike on Syrian military positions, which Mr. Trump later ordered.
.. another layer to a recurring theme in the Trump White House: frustrated aides who sometimes resort to extraordinary measures to thwart the president’s decisions — a phenomenon the author describes as “an administrative coup d’état.” In addition to Mr. Mattis and Mr. Cohn, he recounts the tribulations of Mr. Kelly and his predecessor, Reince Priebus, whose tensions with Mr. Trump have been reported elsewhere.
.. Mr. Cohn, Mr. Woodward said, told a colleague he had removed the letter about the Korea free trade agreement to protect national security. Later, when the president ordered a similar letter authorizing the departure of the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mr. Cohn and other aides plotted how to prevent him from going ahead with a move they feared would be deeply destabilizing.
.. Last January, Mr. Woodward writes, Mr. Dowd staged a practice session in the White House residence to dramatize the pressures Mr. Trump would face in a session with Mr. Mueller. The president stumbled repeatedly, contradicting himself and lying, before he exploded in anger.
.. Mr. Woodward told Mr. Trump he interviewed many White House officials outside their offices, and gathered extensive documentation. “It’s a tough look at the world and the administration and you,” he told Mr. Trump.
“Right,” the president replied. “Well, I assume that means it’s going to be a negative book.”