In the twilight of the ceaselessly dueling courtroom gods, legacies wobble and crack.
Once, they were unquestioned giants of the legal profession. David Boies, the slayer of Microsoft’s monopoly, the man Al Gore turned to in hopes of salvaging his bid for the presidency. Alan Dershowitz, one of the intellectual bulwarks of the O.J. Simpson defense team, the tactician immortalized on the big screen for reversing the murder conviction of socialite Claus von Bülow.
But now, as they reach an age when other esteemed elder statesmen of the bar might be basking in acclaim for their life’s work, the 78-year-old Boies and the 80-year-old Dershowitz are brutally yoked in a subplot of the Jeffrey Epstein sex trafficking case. Their link became even tighter and more complicated this past weekend when the disgraced multimillionaire was found dead of an apparent suicide at a federal detention center in New York where he was awaiting trial on new sex trafficking charges. Epstein’s death occurred the day after newly unsealed court documents claimed he had a voracious sexual appetite for underage girls and detailed the alleged methods he and his friends used to recruit them.
The clash between Dershowitz and Boies, and its offshoots, have spawned lawsuits, swarms of stinging court documents, ferocious accusations, angry television appearances, a secretly taped call and more. In this long-running melodrama, Boies and his partners at Boies Schiller Flexner represent one of Epstein’s accusers, Virginia Roberts Giuffre — who was a teenage locker-room attendant at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort when she met Epstein. Giuffre has alleged that Epstein demanded that she have sex with him repeatedly when she was underage and lent her for sex to his friends, including Dershowitz.
Dershowitz finds himself labeled as an alleged sex abuser in a personal affidavit by Boies, a claim he has volcanically denied. Dershowitz’s effort to counter the accusations has been made all the more nettlesome because his long-ago representation of Epstein has come under greater scrutiny following Epstein’s arrest last month. Dershowitz, an emeritus Harvard University law professor, is also fending off a defamation suit filed by Giuffre, set for key oral arguments next month, in which Boies has become a vital player.
Because Epstein’s death will end his criminal case, the Giuffre defamation action against Dershowitz could be one of the dwindling number of cases that would allow for the full public airing of numerous accusations against Epstein that his alleged victims have long sought.
As the Boies-Dershowitz conflict has dragged on, Boies, his partners and his allies have tarred Dershowitz in personal affidavits related to a bar complaint and a defamation lawsuit for allegedly bedding Giuffre when she was an underage teenager. In court filings, they portray Dershowitz, who has never been charged with a sex crime, as a liar and a sneak who secretly recorded a call with a fellow lawyer.
“After extensive consideration of everything Mr. Dershowitz told and showed me, I ultimately concluded that his denials were not credible,” Boies wrote in an affidavit included in Giuffre’s defamation suit against Dershowitz. (Giuffre sued Dershowitz because of numerous statements he made in media interviews, including calling her a “certified, complete, total liar” and saying that “she simply made up the entire story for money.”)
Meanwhile, Dershowitz has painted Boies as a corrupt attorney with a long trail of ethical lapses, a cheat and the head of a criminal enterprise.
“I believe the law firm of Boies Schiller is a RICO,” Dershowitz said in a recent interview at his New York apartment, citing the acronym used for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law frequently used against the mafia. “I believe they are the law firm of extortion, subornation of perjury and other crimes.”
Boies declined repeated interview requests and did not respond to written questions that specifically referenced the RICO allegation, as well as other assertions made by Dershowitz. Giuffre’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.
Named in a court filing
The mudslinging between two of America’s most famous and celebrated attorneys tracks to the wee hours of Jan. 22, 2015, when the men were casual acquaintances and occasional confidants. Dershowitz, a ubiquitous TV presence, awoke early that morning at his New York apartment and headed to Rockefeller Center, where he was scheduled to appear on NBC’s “Today” show to discuss the sex allegations made by Giuffre.
On the way, Dershowitz seethed.
Three weeks earlier, his name had surfaced in a court filing by Giuffre, who was then known only as Jane Doe No. 3, asking to join a lawsuit related to the Epstein case. The suit alleged that Epstein’s victims hadn’t been notified in advance of a non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors after the wealthy financier was arrested on suspicion of sex trafficking involving minors.
It wasn’t the substance of the complaint about victim notification that was most important to Dershowitz, though. Instead, he was incensed that the filing asserted that Giuffre had been lent to Britain’s Prince Andrew for sex and to Dershowitz, whom she alleged had sex with her at Epstein’s private island, his Palm Beach estate, his New Mexico ranch, his New York mansion and on his private plane.
Dershowitz and the prince adamantly denied the accusations at the time. Dershowitz and Buckingham Palace, speaking on behalf of Andrew, also issued strongly worded denials last week when the court documents were unsealed.
On “Today” that day in 2015, Dershowitz went nuclear. He accused Giuffre of filing “perjured” court papers and said, “She is categorically lying and making the whole thing up.”
Dershowitz has bolstered his contention that Giuffre cannot be trusted by referencing claims that she has made about having dinner with former president Bill Clinton on Epstein’s island. Dershowitz took it upon himself to investigate the Clinton allegation and to clear his name. He hired a security firm headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh to investigate.
Through Freedom of Information Act requests, the firm determined that Clinton could not have been on Epstein’s island during the time period when Giuffre said she had dinner with him. A summary of findings prepared by the Freeh firm states that the FOIA records “completely undermine [Giuffre’s] credibility.” The firm also said it found no evidence to support the sex allegations against Dershowitz.
Last week, Dershowitz also gained what might be a potent weapon in his quest to impeach Giuffre’s credibility in the newly unsealed court documents. The papers relate to a defamation suit filed against Ghislaine Maxwell, whom Giuffre and others have accused of procuring girls and women for Epstein. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2017. The records were unsealed at the request of several news organizations, including The Washington Post and the Miami Herald, which published a series of articles about Epstein’s alleged abuses prior to his recent arrest.
Among the documents was a 2011 email sent to Giuffre from Sharon Churcher, a journalist for the British tabloid the Mail on Sunday, that Dershowitz contends is proof that Giuffre was being encouraged to lie about him. The email appears to reference a book proposal Giuffre was compiling.
“Don’t forget Alan Dershowitz . . . JE’s buddy and lawyer,” Churcher writes to Giuffre in an apparent reference to Jeffrey Epstein’s initials. “Good name for your pitch as he repped Claus von Bulow and a movie was made about that case . . . title was Reversal of Fortune. We all suspect Alan is a pedo and tho no proof of that, you probably met him when he was hanging put [sic] w JE.”
Churcher did not respond to a request for an interview.
The famed law professor’s campaign to refute Giuffre’s allegations created a pile of legal trouble because of the words he chose. While defending himself, he also cast aspersions on the character and ethics of the two attorneys representing Giuffre in her attempt to join the lawsuit related to notifying Epstein’s victims.
Dershowitz had said in a television interview that the attorneys — Florida-based Brad Edwards and former federal judge Paul Cassell — were “prepared to lie, cheat and steal.” He had described Cassell as “essentially a crook.” (Cassell and Edwards did not respond to interview requests.)
Cassell and Edwards responded in the way lawyers might be expected to — they sued him for defamation.
Despite the lawsuit, Dershowitz continued to vociferously and publicly defend himself.
In Florida, an attorney in Boies’s firm named Carlos Sires was watching “Today” when Dershowitz appeared. He reached out via email to Dershowitz offering to help him with the dispute and later discussed the possibility of representing him. (Dershowitz has said he considered Sires his attorney at that point, a contention that Sires has disputed in an affidavit attached to a bar complaint Dershowitz later filed against Boies.)
Sires also said in the affidavit that he was not aware at the time of his initial contact with Dershowitz that other lawyers in his firm were representing Giuffre in a separate case. That digital note set in motion a cascading series of events that have put Dershowitz and Boies at odds for the past four years. (Sires could not be reached for comment.)
The dispute centered on Dershowitz’s claim that Sires reviewed confidential material about the defamation case filed against Dershowitz by Edwards and Cassell. About a week later, Boies determined that there was a conflict that Sires had not known about and the firm notified Dershowitz that it couldn’t represent him.
Dershowitz was angry, concluding that the firm sneakily got inside information about his defense in order to gain an advantage, according to interviews with Dershowitz. Boies has dismissed that suggestion, saying in a personal affidavit connected to the Florida bar complaint Dershowitz later filed against him that material Sires reviewed was nothing more than a recap of Dershowitz’s public statements.
What Dershowitz didn’t know at the time was that Boies, the man who would become his nemesis, had been in contact with Giuffre for nearly six months. Boies was contacted in June 2014 by Stanley Pottinger, an attorney who was the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, about representing Giuffre, according to an affidavit by Boies included in Giuffre’s ongoing case against Dershowitz.
Although Giuffre had two attorneys, Pottinger thought she needed more legal help because he expected her to “become the target of vicious attacks” by people she accused of sex abuse, according to an affidavit Pottinger wrote that is included in Giuffre’s ongoing case against Dershowitz.
The next month, Boies met with Giuffre in New York, according to his affidavit, and he asked Pottinger to vet Giuffre’s claims. Satisfied that she was credible, Boies agreed that his firm would take her on as a client, although he says the firm did no work related to her until November. Boies said in the affidavit that partner Sigrid McCawley represented Giuffre while she was a witness in the defamation suit filed in January 2015 by Edwards and Cassell.
Eventually, Dershowitz came to allege even darker motives for Sires’s outreach after the “Today” interview. He developed a complicated extortion theory involving Boies after being contacted in April 2015 by one of Giuffre’s friends — a woman named Rebecca Boylan — who’d seen coverage of the scandal and agreed to speak with him in a tape-recorded conversation, Dershowitz said in an interview. He played the tape for The Post, but did not let the news organization have a copy,
Boylan, according to Dershowitz’s account of the conversation, told him that Giuffre had never mentioned having sex with him. She added that Giuffre had told her she had been urged by her lawyers to name Dershowitz.
“She felt pressure to do it, she didn’t want to go after you personally,” Boylan said, according to Dershowitz’s tape of the conversation. “She felt pressured by her lawyers.”
But that wasn’t all. Boylan also said that naming Dershowitz was a step in a plan to win an enormous settlement from the founder and CEO of the parent company of Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie giant. Dershowitz knew Boylan was referring to Leslie Wexner, a billionaire who was a close friend and mentor to Epstein.
“They wanted to sue him for at least half his money,” Boylan said, according to Dershowitz’s tape .
Dershowitz also claims that Boies and his firm were attempting to send a message to Wexner, whom Giuffre had not publicly accused at that point of having sex with her at the behest of Epstein, although she later would. The message, according to Dershowitz, was that Wexner would be publicly shamed, in the same way that Dershowitz had been, if he didn’t pay up.
Boies wrote in his response to Dershowitz’s Florida bar complaint that neither he nor McCawley had been involved in the decision to name Dershowitz and has denied attempting to extort Wexner. He also wrote that “no settlement demand was ever made, or even discussed with, Mr. Wexner or his counsel.”
(Wexner declined to be interviewed, and Boylan could not be reached for comment.)
A secretly taped call
Still, Dershowitz was eager to persuade Boies that he was innocent, according to interviews with Dershowitz and accounts of their interactions included in an affidavit by Boies. The two men began a series of meetings between May and July 2015, according to Boies’s affidavit.
Among the items Dershowitz showed Boies, according to Dershowitz, were detailed calendars that he cited as definitive proof that he could not have been at Epstein’s island, ranch, Palm Beach mansion or on his private plane during the time period when Giuffre said he was having sex with her. (Dershowitz keeps a massive spreadsheet handy at his New York apartment to show the reporters he’s courted to tell his version of events.)
The two lawyers have different memories of those meetings. Dershowitz has asserted in interviews with The Post that Boies told him during those meetings that Giuffre must have mistaken him for someone else. Boies wrote in his affidavit that Dershowitz’s account “is not true.” Among the data points Boies cites in his affidavit is a lie-detector test that he says Giuffre passed. (Results of such tests are seldom deemed admissible in court.)
Later in 2015, Dershowitz took the unusual step of secretly taping a call with Boies. Dershowitz played the tape, which is muffled and cuts off at points, for The Post, but did not allow the newspaper to have a copy. On the tape, Boies appears to say he and one of his partners are convinced Giuffre’s claim of having sex with Dershowitz is “wrong.” Boies said in his affidavit that he never told Dershowitz that Giuffre wasn’t telling the truth.
In Giuffre’s defamation case against Dershowitz, two of Boies’s partners assert that the taping was “a violation of the canons of ethics.” They also say Boies was merely discussing a hypothetical and that he believed all along that Giuffre was telling the truth. Dershowitz has said the taping was entirely legal because at the time he was in New York, which only requires the consent of one of the parties on the call for a legal taping.
Armed with what he thought was a plausible extortion theory and with his taped evidence, Dershowitz went to war.
In 2017, he filed the bar complaint against Boies in Florida. The document lays out his allegations about the Boies firm’s handling of the defamation case filed against him by Edwards and Cassell, and then goes on to read almost like a lengthy Wikipedia article about controversies during what he describes as the Boies firm’s “long and sordid history.” He cites a 2012 case in which a New York judge chided Boies’s firm, saying “a clearer conflict of interest cannot be imagined. A first-year law student on day one of an ethics course should be able to spot it.”
Dershowitz also summarized the controversy over a potential conflict spurred by Boies serving on the board of directors and as a lawyer for Theranos, the scandal-plagued blood-testing start-up.
The bar complaint, which was obtained by The Post, surfaced shortly after Boies was enmeshed in a major conflict-of-interest scandal in 2017 involving the famed movie producer Harvey Weinstein, who was being accused in a series of sexual abuse incidents. At the time, Boies was getting a torrent of bad publicity because of the revelation in media reports that he was representing the New York Times in legal matters without telling the newspaper that he was simultaneously representing Weinstein, who was being investigated by Times reporters. Boies also secretly oversaw an effort to undermine the paper’s reporting by hiring a firm that employed former agents of the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, to collect information on Times reporters and Weinstein’s alleged victims.
The Times cut ties with Boies and issued a blistering statement.
“We learned today that the law firm of Boies Schiller and Flexner secretly worked to stop our reporting on Harvey Weinstein at the same time as the firm’s lawyers were representing us in other matters. We consider this intolerable conduct, a grave betrayal of trust, and a breach of the basic professional standards that all lawyers are required to observe.” It added: “We never contemplated that the law firm would contract with an intelligence firm to conduct a secret spying operation aimed at our reporting and our reporters. Such an operation is reprehensible.”
Boies had signed the contract with the spy group, but later tried to distance himself from its work.
“I regret having done this,” Boies said in an email sent to his staff that was published by New York magazine. “It was a mistake to contract with, and pay on behalf of a client, investigators who we did not select and did not control. I would never knowingly participate in an effort to intimidate or silence women or anyone else. . . . That is not who I am.”
Dershowitz seized on the Times imbroglio to press his argument in public that Boies is an unethical lawyer.
“No lawyer in modern American history has ever been more credibly accused of more ethical violations than David Boies and his law firm,” Dershowitz said in a recent interview with The Post.
In 2017, Boies’s firm issued a statement in response to Dershowitz’s conflict-of-interest allegations, saying: “Over the years, there have been some bar complaints filed against Mr. Boies. Each of them was filed by an unhappy adverse party; none was filed by a client. No disciplinary action was ever taken.”
The dispute goes on
The feud between Dershowitz and Boies is well known in legal circles, where both men have earned stellar reputations over the years.
“People can have grudges and sometimes things get heated between lawyers, but based on headlines about two people I’ve worked with, who are talented, smart and committed to their clients, we just don’t have enough information to make a judgment,” said Lawrence Fox, a Yale Law professor and former chairman of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility who has worked alongside both men.
As the months have passed, one by one, Dershowitz’s broadsides against Boies and his allies have cratered. He settled the defamation case filed by Cassell and Edwards, Giuffre’s attorneys, before Boies and his partners came on the scene.
Earlier this year, the Florida bar complaint against Boies got tossed out.
But their dispute continues, with the next field of battle in New York, where Giuffre’s defamation case against Dershowitz — with a potential star plaintiff’s witness named David Boies — trudges on. Boies is a potential witness because he could be called to testify about his interactions with Dershowitz and about Dershowitz’s extortion theory. That means that Dershowitz, the 80-year-old, and Boies, the 78-year-old, will tangle again as the elder party in the grudge match tries to get the younger one’s law firm barred from representing Giuffre in the defamation suit against Dershowitz.
And so it has gone for years, an endless cycle of enmity playing out on a continuous loop. This clash of the titans is so persistent and many-tentacled that one could imagine it outliving the legal giants it has consumed.
A cache of documents offers disturbing testimony about what happened inside the Florida mansion owned by Jeffrey Epstein.
A rotating cast of girls would sit around Jeffrey Epstein’s waterfront mansion, drinking milk.
To Alfredo Rodriguez, Mr. Epstein’s butler in the mid-2000s, that was one reason he suspected that his boss was engaged in sexual activities with underage girls. At times, Mr. Rodriguez later told a Florida police detective in a sworn statement, he was instructed to dispense hundreds of dollars to the girls after they performed massages for Mr. Epstein; at other times, Mr. Rodriguez gave them “tips” in the form of iPods and jewelry.
Manhattan federal prosecutors last month charged Mr. Epstein, 66, with sex trafficking of girls as young as 14, and details of his behavior have been emerging for years.
But a cache of previously sealed legal documents, released on Friday by a federal appeals court, provides new, disturbing details about what was going on inside Mr. Epstein’s homes and how his associates recruited young women and girls, including from a Florida high school.
The documents — among the most expansive sets of materials publicly disclosed in the 13 years since Mr. Epstein was first charged with sex crimes — include depositions, police incident reports, photographs, receipts, flight logs and even a memoir written by a woman who says she was a sex-trafficking victim of Mr. Epstein and his acquaintances.
The documents were filed as part of a defamation lawsuit in federal court that Virginia Giuffre brought in 2015 against Ghislaine Maxwell, Mr. Epstein’s longtime companion and confidant. Ms. Giuffre and Ms. Maxwell settled the lawsuit shortly before the trial was to begin in 2017.
The Miami Herald and other media outlets petitioned the court to have the lawsuit documents unsealed. The request was initially denied, but an appeals court ordered them released last month, just days before Mr. Epstein was arrested on sex-trafficking charges. He has pleaded not guilty.
Mr. Epstein, a financier with opulent homes, a private jet and access to elite circles, had been dogged for decades by accusations that he had paid dozens of girls for sexual acts in Florida. He previously avoided federal criminal charges in 2008 after prosecutors brokered a widely criticized deal that allowed him to plea to solicitation of prostitution from a minor and serve 13 months in jail.
About 2,000 pages of the materials were posted online by the appeals court on Friday, providing a high-definition glimpse inside what federal prosecutors have said was Mr. Epstein’s long-running sex-trafficking operation.
The fullest account is provided by Ms. Giuffre, who claims that Mr. Epstein forced her into being a “sex slave.”
In a sworn deposition, she said she first met Ms. Maxwell, the daughter of the British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell, and Mr. Epstein in the summer of 2000, when she was 16. At the time, Ms. Giuffre was working as a masseuse at the spa at Donald J. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, where her father was a maintenance worker.
She said she was sitting outside the locker room, reading a book on massage therapy, when Ms. Maxwell approached her. She said she knew someone who was looking for a traveling masseuse. “If the guy likes you, then, you know, it will work out for you. You’ll travel. You’ll make good money. You’ll be educated,” Ms. Giuffre recalled Ms. Maxwell telling her.
Ms. Giuffre took the job. Ms. Maxwell trained her on how to give erotic massages, and Ms. Giuffre soon began providing them to Mr. Epstein at his mansion in Palm Beach, Fla. Before long, she said, she was being flown on Mr. Epstein’s private Gulfstream jet to perform sexual services on Mr. Epstein’s acquaintances, including politicians and high-powered businessmen.
The word “massage” became code for “sex,” she said in the 2016 deposition. “My whole life revolved around just pleasing these men and keeping Ghislaine and Jeffrey happy,” she said. “Their whole entire lives revolved around sex. They call massages sex. They call modeling sex.”
Ms. Maxwell’s depositions provide, for the first time, a glimpse at her perspective. She denounced Ms. Giuffre, saying that “everything Virginia has said is an absolute lie.” Lawyers for Ms. Maxwell were out of the country and unavailable for comment on Friday, their office said.
In court papers, the lawyers painted Ms. Giuffre as a troubled woman with a history of substance abuse and a turbulent personal life. They said her allegations shifted and became more lurid as she sought to sell her story to the media and publishers.
Ms. Giuffre had said she wrote her recollections of her experiences in a journal, but burned it in a bonfire that she and her husband built in their Titusville, Fla., backyard in 2013, according to court papers.
Back at Mr. Epstein’s Palm Beach home, partially shielded from view by a large hedge, it was hard for workers to miss what was happening.
John Alessi, a maintenance worker there from 1990 until about 2001, said he saw about 100 female masseuses at various times in the house.
After massages, Mr. Alessi said in a deposition, he occasionally found sex toys in Ms. Maxwell’s bathroom in the mansion. He said he put gloves on, rinsed the instruments and placed them in a closet.
Mr. Rodriguez, Mr. Epstein’s butler, had a similar recollection. In July 2006, he told a Palm Beach police detective in a sworn statement that after girls gave massages to Mr. Epstein, Mr. Rodriguez would go into his bedroom to wipe down vibrators and sex toys and then stash them in a wooden armoire near Mr. Epstein’s bed.
On occasion, Mr. Alessi said, he drove Ms. Maxwell from one Palm Beach spa to another, where she left her business cards in order to recruit massage therapists for Mr. Epstein.
Ms. Maxwell recruited Johanna Sjoberg in 2001 on the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic College, where she was a student. Ms. Sjoberg said in a deposition that Ms. Maxwell dangled a job as a personal assistant. She figured she could make some quick money answering phones for Mr. Epstein.
But that was not what the job entailed. Once at Mr. Epstein’s mansion, Ms. Sjoberg said, she was told to perform sexual massages on Mr. Epstein — and was punished when he did not have an orgasm.
Around the mansion, massage tables were ubiquitous, even in outdoor spaces and in guest rooms, where Mr. Epstein would send women to service houseguests. “A massage was like a treat for all the guests at Mr. Epstein’s home,” Mr. Alessi said in an affidavit.
Mr. Rodriguez, the butler, told a Palm Beach police detective, Joseph Recarey, that he suspected the girls were underage in part because their eating habits reminded him of his daughter, who was in high school.
“Rodriguez stated they would eat tons of cereal and drink milk all the time,” according to a report Detective Recarey filed. Mr. Rodriguez died in 2015.
Also among the unsealed materials was an Amazon shipping document that shows a book on “erotic servitude” and a “Workbook for Erotic Slaves and Their Owners,” both of which were delivered to Mr. Epstein at his Palm Beach home.
Lawyers for Mr. Epstein did not respond to requests for comment.
The documents traced the investigation conducted by the Palm Beach Police Department, led by Detective Recarey. With the help of the local sanitation department, investigators sifted through Mr. Epstein’s trash, which yielded written phone messages, sometimes leading the police to potential victims.
Detective Recarey, who retired in 2013 after more than two decades on the force, said in a 2016 deposition that he interviewed about 30 girls who were sought to give massages. Some of the girls were terrified and tearful as he interviewed them.
A number of the girls, including one who was 15 at the time, said they were brought to Mr. Epstein’s Palm Beach house and told they could make money by modeling lingerie for him, according to reports that Detective Recarey filed and that were unsealed.
Once at the mansion, a chef would prepare the girls a meal. Then they would be escorted upstairs to the master bedroom. Mr. Epstein, clad in a towel, often would request a massage of his feet and calves. He would touch the girls while masturbating under his towel. They were generally paid $200 per visit.
Mr. Rodriguez told Detective Recarey, who died last year, that he was a “human A.T.M.,” required to always have at least $2,000 on hand to pay the women and girls. Once, Mr. Epstein instructed him to deliver a dozen roses to one of the girls at her high school after a drama performance.
The U.S. and Chinese governments both sent signals ahead of their trade talks in Washington last week that a pact was so near they would discuss the logistics of a signing ceremony.
In a matter of days, the dynamic shifted so markedly that the Chinese deliberated whether to even show up after President Trump ordered a last-minute increase in tariffs on Chinese imports because the U.S. viewed China as reneging on previous commitments.
Inside the cloistered Zhongnanhai government compound in Beijing, President Xi Jinping and his close advisers discussed how to respond to the tariff increase, given the talks were just days away, according to Chinese officials with knowledge of the decision-making process.
After huddling Tuesday to analyze a press conference given by the U.S.’s two top negotiators, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Chinese officials concluded that they should travel to at least avoid a rift that could be difficult to repair.
The recommendation went to China’s chief negotiator, Liu He, and ultimately to Mr. Xi. He decided to send the team even though Beijing was fully aware that the trip held little prospect of progress, given how quickly problems had arisen. “The goal was simply to keep the talks going,” said one of the Chinese officials with knowledge of the matter.
By the end of the week, that was as much as both sides could cite for their efforts: the avoidance of a serious rupture that would doom any prospect of a future deal and a commitment to stay near the negotiating table.
So far, the trade talks have provided little evidence that the two nations have found a formula for how to negotiate successfully since Messrs. Trump and Xi met in Buenos Aires Dec. 1, which paved the way to Washington last week.
China didn’t immediately impose new strictures on U.S. businesses, as it has done when things weren’t going well in the past. Mr. Liu is expected to brief Mr. Xi on the discussions he had in Washington before Beijing decides on the next course of action, according to the officials familiar with the process.
.. Bridging the trade rift may ultimately depend on the personal chemistry between President Trump and President Xi and their willingness to push matters forward after months of negotiations that have been full of positive intentions but thwarted by miscalculations, accusations of backtracking and unfulfilled expectations.
“The more heated moments have been in situations where we thought we had something and suddenly there was some backsliding,” said one person involved in the discussions on the U.S. side.
“We’ve expressed some pretty serious frustration at times,” this person said. “It’s been a necessary ingredient to success. You can be nice to someone, but sometimes you need to say ‘stop screwing me.’ ”
.. “We were in the process of planning for a signing summit with President Trump and President Xi upon the completion of this agreement,” Mr. Mnuchin later told reporters. One of the issues was where to hold the celebratory moment: Washington or Mr. Trump’s golf estates in Mar-a-Lago, in Florida, or Bedminster, N.J., say Trump aides.
To the Chinese, this was a matter of honor: The U.S. should trust Beijing to make the changes they said they would make, even if that meant changing regulations rather than laws. Besides, the U.S. was being unfair in refusing, upon the signing of a deal, to remove tariffs that had been assessed in the yearlong fight, the Chinese believed.
“There is a real desire on our end to keep the tariffs on,” one White House official said. “That is a sticking point.”
Shortly after Mr. Trump’s announcement of the tariff increase, Beijing’s trade negotiators, who had booked Air China tickets to Washington, received an urgent order: Stay put until further notice. “Looks like we’re not going,” one of them said early Monday morning.
Up until that moment, China’s leadership had expected the trip to bring months of negotiations to a close, according to Chinese officials close to the negotiation process, given that Chinese diplomats were already in discussion with their American counterparts about a possible summit between Messrs. Xi and Trump to finalize a trade agreement.
Now, the pressing question for Beijing became: Should it pull out of the planned talks to adhere to its longstanding public position that China doesn’t negotiate under threat? Or should China bite the bullet and still send the delegation to avoid a complete collapse of negotiations?
The Chinese side wanted more information from Washington before making the decision. But senior officials knew news of Mr. Trump’s tweets would inevitably cause market anxiety. The first order of business Monday morning: China’s central bank sped up a plan to release more funds for banks, a stimulus measure aimed at calming jittery investors and businesses.
State-backed funds were also instructed to buy what was necessary to prevent a free fall of shares. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman released a statement at Monday’s regular press briefing that said only that the Chinese delegation was “preparing to travel to the U.S.” The spokesman didn’t say when the team would depart or give additional details.
On Tuesday morning, a group of officials at the vice minister level, including Liao Min, a trusted aide to Mr. Liu and a vice Finance Minister, and Wang Shouwen, a vice Commerce Minister, reached the conclusion the talks should proceed, a position endorsed by Mr. Xi though expectations of a positive result had fallen sharply.
The U.S. side made some calls that turned off the Chinese, too. By insisting that it wouldn’t remove any tariffs upon closing a deal, the U.S. gave Beijing little incentive to accept tough conditions. The U.S. position remained firm: no tariff removal until Beijing showed it would carry through on the commitments it made under the deal. On top of that, the U.S. wanted China to pledge not to retaliate if the U.S. were to reimpose tariffs if it found China in violation of some provisions.
Mr. Trump on Thursday let it be known he didn’t want the U.S. to appear soft on China, according to one person briefed on the matter.
The two days of negotiations went amicably nonetheless, according to people tracking the talks. Messrs Lighthizer and Mnuchin, who both were in the discussions, took Mr. Liu to a working dinner at the Metropolitan Club, a ritzy private club near the U.S. Trade Representative’s headquarters that is a Lighthizer favorite. Mr. Liu continued the talks on Friday despite the U.S. implementing the higher tariffs very early Friday morning.
Later that morning, Mr. Lighthizer greeted the Chinese envoy at the door of the USTR office—a gesture he rarely makes, but one which he could be sure would be captured by photographers and camera crews waiting outside.
By then, though, the U.S. team went into the talks not expecting to do a deal, figuring they would have a “non-meeting,” according to one person briefed on the discussions. U.S. officials at least wanted to make sure they didn’t leave with a complete break. The goal of the meeting was to be able to say the U.S. negotiators were still trying, this person said.
In an interview with Chinese media Friday, Mr. Liu disputed U.S. accounts that China reneged on commitments it had already made as part of the trade talks. “We are very clear that we cannot make concessions on matters of principle,” Mr. Liu said. “We hope our U.S. colleagues understand this.”
Perhaps Zhang’s pool excuse was a quick and casual line to pass through the first security perimeter without many questions. Did she actually have a better cover story, or maybe a verifiable true story, she was able to present under more intense questioning? Zhang reportedly underwent four-and-a-half hours of questioning by the Secret Service. How did this go? What explanation did she give for her visit to Mar-a-Lago in this high-stakes setting? Did her explanation fit with answers she gave when applying for a visa to enter the country? Zhang reportedly previously traveled to the United States, in 2016 and 2017. Does her explanation for those trips match information she gave when applying for a visa, and how do those trips fit with her current itinerary and actions?
If Zhang isn’t a spy, or up to other nefarious things, why is it that she “lies to everyone,” as the prosecutor said in court? Could she simply be confused or did she communicate poorly because English is not her native language? Investigators, particularly those who questioned her, know better than we do about Zhang’s command of English. The Miami Heraldreported that she “appeared to speak English” to a lawyer in court and she took notes during the hearing, but a translator was also present.
How would Zhang have operated inside Mar-a-Lago?
The president’s vacation abode is a target-rich environment. There are the obvious marks: The president and his inner circle. But those people are hard to access. Better targets might be the multitudes of people at Mar-a-Lago who aren’t in the president’s inner circle but who have access to those who are and can influence and glean information from them.
A casual observer could also gather a load of information simply by being present at Mar-a-Lago.
- Who is there?
- Who is trying to get access and influence people? Who interacts with whom?
- What activities do they participate in?
- What schedule do they follow?
This could help a foreign intelligence service target people for recruitment as assets. It could also tell a foreign intelligence service what other countries are running operations there and which individuals they are targeting using what methods. This is important counterintelligence information for any spy agency, a window into other countries’ priorities and how close they are to achieving them.
It’s also possible Zhang wanted to observe the security situation at the resort, laying the groundwork for some future operation. She might have witnessed how Secret Service and resort security worked (or didn’t work) together and how freely Trump and his people move around, to determine what kind of access might be available.
But Zhang’s more than $8,000 worth of cash (in U.S. and Chinese currency) was found in her hotel room at the Colony Hotel about two miles from Mar-a-Lago, not on her person. Unless she planned to enter the resort a second time, it seems very unlikely she was there to pay an asset for information.
Some tourists do indeed travel with loads of cash. Although Zhang has a Wells Fargo account in the United States that she could have accessed. And that account raises new questions. When and why did she set up this account and how has she used it in the past? Is her use of this bank account consistent with the investor and consulting business she claims to run? Or did she set it up years ago in an attempt to build her cover story while laying the groundwork for an intelligence operation? Investigators will try to find answers to those questions.
But an intelligence officer might also have multiple phones and SIM cards. Good spies follow the “one phone, one operation” rule. That is, they don’t call different assets using the same phone, because then they become linked, and key in any intelligence operation is to keep information compartmented. Much like you don’t want to send private texts on your work phone, you don’t want communications with multiple assets on a single device.
There is also the question of what kinds of phones these are. Are they burner phones, which are pay-as-you-go and not registered to an individual and therefore not easily traceable back to the purchaser and user? A spy would most likely use a burner phone. Or, maybe she was delivering burner phones to assets inside the resort to make communication easier? Or are these regular phones, registered in Zhang’s name or her company’s name? Investigators will certainly run traces on the phones and SIM cards to see if they link to anyone of interest or if they suggest a strange pattern of behavior, such as communicating with someone in a way that is meant to hide the contact.
Thumb drives are pretty normal in business, but malware isn’t. The fact that the first thumb drive Secret Service looked at had malware on it does not look good for Zhang.
It’s possible that a spy would want to use malware to destroy a network at the resort. But a foreign intelligence service would more likely be interested in using it to gather useful information. There is very little chance (if any) that Zhang could have gotten the malware anywhere near a government computer. But to slip a program into the resort’s network that would allow an intelligence service to see guest lists, schedules and itineraries, room assignments, and who is coming and going? Yes, that would be of interest.
At Deutsche Bank, Mr. Offit’s mandate was to lend money to big real estate developers, package the loans into securities and sell the resulting bonds to investors. He said in an interview that one way to stand out in a crowded market was to make loans that his rivals considered too risky.
In 1998, a broker contacted him to see if he would consider lending to a Wall Street pariah: Mr. Trump, who was then a casino magnate whose bankruptcies had cost banks hundreds of millions of dollars.
Mr. Offit took the meeting.
A few days later, Mr. Offit’s secretary called him. “Donald Trump is in the conference room,” she whispered. Mr. Offit said he rushed in, expecting to find an entourage. Mr. Trump was alone.
He was looking for a $125 million loan to pay for gut renovations of 40 Wall Street, his Art Deco tower in Lower Manhattan. Mr. Offit was impressed by the pitch, and the loan sailed through Deutsche Bank’s approval process.
Mr. Trump seemed giddy with gratitude, Mr. Offit recalled. He took Mr. Offit golfing. He flew him by helicopter to Atlantic City for boxing matches. He wrote a grateful note to Sidney Offit for having “a great son!”
Mr. Offit commissioned a detailed model of 40 Wall Street. A golden plaque on its pedestal bore the names and logos of Deutsche Bank and the Trump Organization. Mr. Offit gave one to Mr. Trump and kept another in his office.
Mr. Trump soon came looking for $300 million for the construction of a skyscraper across from the United Nations headquarters. The loan was approved. He wanted hundreds of millions more for his Trump Marina casino in Atlantic City. Mr. Offit pledged to line up cash for that, too.
Not long after, Edson Mitchell, a top bank executive, discovered that the signature of the credit officer who had approved the Trump Marina deal had been forged, Mr. Offit said. (Mr. Offit was never accused of forgery; the loan never went through.)
Mr. Offit was fired months later. He said it was because Mr. Mitchell claimed that he was reckless, a charge Mr. Offit disputed.
It was the first hiccup in the Trump relationship. It would not be the last.
Over the next few years, the commercial real estate group, with Mr. Kennedy now in a senior role, kept lending to Mr. Trump, including to buy the General Motors building in Manhattan. Occasionally, Justice Kennedy stopped by Deutsche Bank’s offices to say hello to the team, executives recalled.
At an annual pro-am golf tournament the bank hosted outside Boston in the early 2000s, Mr. Trump sat down for a recorded interview with the bank’s public relations staff, who asked about his experience with Deutsche Bank.
“It’s great,” Mr. Trump exclaimed, according to a person who witnessed the interview. “They’re really fast!”
In 2003, a Deutsche Bank team led by Richard Byrne — a former casino-industry analyst who had known Mr. Trump since the 1980s — was hired to sell bonds on behalf of Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts. Bank officials escorted Mr. Trump to meet institutional investors in New York and Boston, according to an executive who attended.
The so-called roadshow seemed to go well. At every stop, Mr. Trump was greeted by large audiences of fund managers, executives and lower-level employees eager to see the famous mogul. The problem, as a Deutsche Bank executive would explain to Mr. Trump, was that few of them were willing to entrust money to him.
Mr. Trump requested an audience with the bank’s bond salesmen.
According to a Deutsche Bank executive who heard the remarks, Mr. Trump gave a pep talk. “Fellas, I know this isn’t the easiest thing you’ve had to sell,” the executive recalled Mr. Trump saying. “But if you get this done, you’ll all be my guests at Mar-a-Lago,” his private club in Palm Beach, Fla.
The sales team managed to sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bonds. Mr. Trump was pleased with the results when a Deutsche Bank executive called, according to a person who heard the conversation.
“Don’t forget what you promised our guys,” the executive reminded him.
Mr. Trump said he did not remember and that he doubted the salesmen actually expected to be taken to Mar-a-Lago.
“That’s all they’ve talked about the past week,” the executive replied.
Mr. Trump ultimately flew about 15 salesmen to Florida on his Boeing 727. They spent a weekend golfing with Mr. Trump, two participants said.
A year later, in 2004, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts defaulted on the bonds. Deutsche Bank’s clients suffered steep losses. This arm of the investment-banking division stopped doing business with Mr. Trump.
.. Mr. Trump told Deutsche Bank his net worth was about $3 billion, but when bank employees reviewed his finances, they concluded he was worth about $788 million, according to documents produced during a lawsuit Mr. Trump brought against the former New York Times journalist Timothy O’Brien. And a senior investment-banking executive said in an interview that he and others cautioned that Mr. Trump should be avoided because he had worked with people in the construction industry connected to organized crime.
Nonetheless, Deutsche Bank agreed in 2005 to lend Mr. Trump more than $500 million for the project. He personally guaranteed $40 million of it, meaning the bank could come after his personal assets if he defaulted.
By 2008, the riverside skyscraper, one of the tallest in America, was mostly built. But with the economy sagging, Mr. Trump struggled to sell hundreds of condominium units. The bulk of the loan was due that November.
Then the financial crisis hit, and Mr. Trump’s lawyers sensed an opportunity.
A provision in the loan let Mr. Trump partially off the hook in the event of a “force majeure,” essentially an act of God, like a natural disaster. The former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan had called the financial crisis a tsunami. And what was a tsunami if not a natural disaster?
.. One of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Steven Schlesinger, told him the provision could be used against Deutsche Bank.
“It’s brilliant!” Mr. Schlesinger recalled Mr. Trump responding.
Days before the loan was due, Mr. Trump sued Deutsche Bank, citing the force majeure language and seeking $3 billion in damages. Deutsche Bank countersued and demanded payment of the $40 million that Mr. Trump had personally guaranteed.
With the suits in court, senior investment-banking executives severed ties with Mr. Trump.
.. Ms. Vrablic’s superiors encouraged her to make loans that rival banks dismissed as too large or complex. They saw it as a way to elbow into the hypercompetitive New York market.
.. One of Ms. Vrablic’s clients was Jared Kushner, who married Ivanka Trump in 2009. Mr. Kushner regarded Ms. Vrablic as the best banker he had ever worked with, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
Shortly after the Chicago lawsuit was settled, Mr. Kushner was told that Mr. Trump was looking for a loan and introduced him to Ms. Vrablic, according to people familiar with the relationship.
.. Mr. Trump flew Ms. Vrablic to Miami to show her a property he wanted to buy: the Doral Golf Resort and Spa. He needed more than $100 million for the 72-hole property.
Deutsche Bank dispatched a team to Trump Tower to inspect Mr. Trump’s personal and corporate financial records. The bankers determined he was overvaluing some of his real estate assets by as much as 70 percent, according to two former executives.
.. By then, though, Mr. Trump had become a reality-TV star, and he was swimming in cash from “The Apprentice.” Deutsche Bank officials also were impressed that Mr. Trump did not have much debt, according to people who reviewed his finances. Aside from his history of defaults, he was an attractive borrower.
Mr. Trump also expressed interest in another loan from the private-banking division: $48 million for the same Chicago property that had provoked the two-year court fight.
Mr. Trump told the bank he would use that loan to repay what he still owed the investment-banking division, the two former executives said. Even by Wall Street standards, borrowing money from one part of a bank to pay off a loan from another was an extraordinary act of financial chutzpah.
.. Investment-banking executives, including Anshu Jain, who would soon become Deutsche Bank’s co-chief executive, pushed back. Lending to Mr. Trump again would be foolish, they argued, and signal to clients that they could default and even sue the bank.
Executives in the private bank countered that the proposed loans had Mr. Trump’s personal guarantee and therefore were low risk. And the Chicago loan, they noted, would lead to the repayment of tens of millions of dollars that Mr. Trump still owed the investment-banking division.
A top executive with responsibility for the private bank discussed the loans with Mr. Ackermann, the chief executive, who supported them, according to two officials. A powerful committee in Frankfurt, which evaluated loans based on risks to the bank’s reputation, signed off.
“There is no objection from the bank to proceed with this client,” wrote Stuart Clarke, the chief operating officer for the Americas, in a Dec. 5, 2011, email, according to a recipient.
Deutsche Bank wired the money to Mr. Trump. The loans carried relatively low interest rates, executives said, but the business promised to be profitable: As part of the deal, Mr. Trump would hold millions of dollars in a personal account, generating fees for the bank.
“I have no recollection of having been asked to approve that private-banking loan,” Mr. Ackermann said in an interview. He added: “I would have approved it, if it came to me, if it was commercially sound.”
Ms. Vrablic’s relationship with the Trumps deepened.
Deutsche Bank lent money to Donald Trump Jr. for a South Carolina manufacturing venture that would soon go bankrupt. It provided a $15 million credit line to Mr. Kushner and his mother, according to financial documents reviewed by The Times. The bank previously had an informal ban on business with the Kushners because Jared’s father, Charles, was a felon.
In 2012, Jared Kushner recommended that the editor of The Mortgage Observer, one of the publications he owned, write a profile of Ms. Vrablic. The editor, Carl Gaines, knew Mr. Kushner was her client and objected, according to a person familiar with the exchange.
“Just go meet with her,” Mr. Kushner said. “You’ll figure something out.”
A gauzy profile of Ms. Vrablic was published in February 2013.
Shortly afterward, the private bank produced a promotional video featuring some of its marquee clients. The video was played at a retreat for Deutsche Bank’s senior leadership in Barcelona. In it, Ivanka Trump extolled the private bank’s work with her family and thanked their relationship manager, according to two people who saw the video.
.. In early 2014, Mr. Trump and his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, approached Ms. Vrablic about more potential loans.
The owner of the Buffalo Bills had died, and the N.F.L. franchise was up for sale. Mr. Trump was interested, and he needed to show the league he had the financial wherewithal to pull off a transaction that could top $1 billion.
Mr. Trump asked Ms. Vrablic if the bank would be willing to make a loan and handed over bare-bones financial statements that estimated his net worth at $8.7 billion.
.. Mr. Cohen testified to Congress last month that the documents exaggerated Mr. Trump’s wealth. Deutsche Bank executives had reached a similar conclusion. They nonetheless agreed to vouch for Mr. Trump’s bid, according to an executive involved.
Mr. Trump’s bid did not win, but another lending opportunity soon arose.
A federal agency had selected Mr. Trump to transform the Old Post Office Building in Washington into a luxury hotel. But his financial partner — the private equity firm Colony Capital, run by Thomas J. Barrack Jr. — pulled out. Mr. Trump needed nearly $200 million.
.. Because of his decades-long pattern of defaults and his increasingly polarizing political rhetoric — among other things, he had been spreading a lie about President Barack Obama being born overseas — Mr. Trump remained untouchable for most banks.
Ms. Vrablic was willing to help.
In a memo outlining the rationale for the Old Post Office loan, Ms. Vrablic said Mr. Trump was expected to add large sums to his brokerage account if he received the loan, according to an executive who read the document.
This time, there was less internal opposition. One reason: Mr. Jain — by then the bank’s co-chief executive — had a solid relationship with Ms. Vrablic. Mr. Jain accompanied her to meetings with high-profile clients, and he praised her work to colleagues, multiple executives said.
..On a foggy Wednesday in February 2013, Ms. Vrablic and Mr. Jain went to Trump Tower to meet with Mr. Trump, according to two executives with knowledge of the meeting. Ms. Vrablic’s rapport with the client was immediately clear: Mr. Trump’s assistant greeted her as an old friend, and she seemed relaxed with Mr. Trump and his daughter, one executive said.
.. They discussed Mr. Trump’s finances over lunch, and Mr. Jain said he was surprised by his low level of debt, the executives said. After lunch, Ms. Vrablic told her colleagues that Mr. Jain had sounded upbeat about Mr. Trump’s finances.
A $170 million loan to pay for the overhaul of the Old Post Office went through in 2015, and Mr. Trump added more money to his brokerage account. (In May 2016, he reported up to $46 million of stocks and bonds in the account.)
.. On Aug. 6, 2015, Mr. Trump participated in the first Republican presidential debate. He clashed with the Fox News moderator, Megyn Kelly. He flew back to New York early the next morning. That evening, he called in to a CNN talk show and said of Ms. Kelly that there was “blood coming out of her wherever.”
In the intervening hours, Mr. Trump had used a black Sharpie to sign documents for another loan from Deutsche Bank: $19 million for the Doral resort. That brought to more than $300 million the total lent under Ms. Vrablic.
.. On the campaign trail, rivals assailed Mr. Trump’s financial history. In response, he pointed to Deutsche Bank-funded successes like the Old Post Office project, now a gleaming hotel a few blocks from the White House.
.. In early 2016, Mr. Trump asked Ms. Vrablic for one final loan, for his golf course in Turnberry, Scotland.
.. Ms. Vrablic said yes, but a fight soon erupted.
Jacques Brand, who was in charge of Deutsche Bank’s American businesses, angrily objected, partly because of Mr. Trump’s divisive rhetoric.
Ms. Vrablic appealed the decision. Senior executives in Frankfurt, including Christian Sewing, who would become chief executive in 2018, were shocked that the private bank would consider lending Mr. Trump money during the campaign, bank officials said.
The bank’s reputational risk committee killed the transaction in March 2016.
.. That same month, as The Times was preparing an article about Mr. Trump’s excommunication from Wall Street, he cited his warm relationship with Deutsche Bank.
.. “They are totally happy with me,” he said to The Times. “Why don’t you call the head of Deutsche Bank? Her name is Rosemary Vrablic. She is the boss.”
.. After Mr. Trump won the election, Deutsche Bank’s board of directors rushed to understand how the bank had become the biggest lender to the president-elect.
A report prepared by the board’s integrity committee concluded that executives in the private-banking division were so determined to win business from big-name clients that they had ignored Mr. Trump’s reputation for demagogy and defaults, according to a person who read the report.
The review also found that Deutsche Bank had produced a number of “exposure reports” that flagged the growing business with Mr. Trump, but that they had not been adequately reviewed by senior executives.
.. On Deutsche Bank’s trading floor, managers began warning employees not to use the word “Trump” in communications with people outside the bank. Salesmen who violated the edict were scolded by compliance officers who said the bank feared stoking public interest in its ties to the new president.
One reason: If Mr. Trump were to default on his loans, Deutsche Bank would have to choose between seizing his assets or cutting him a lucrative break — a situation the bank would rather resolve in private.
.. Two years after Mr. Trump was sworn in, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. The chamber’s financial services and intelligence committees opened investigations into Deutsche Bank’s relationship with Mr. Trump. Those inquiries, as well as the New York attorney general’s investigation, come at a perilous time for Deutsche Bank, which is negotiating to merge with another large German lender.
Next month, Deutsche Bank is likely to start handing over extensive internal documents and communications about Mr. Trump to the congressional committees, according to people briefed on the process.
Ms. Vrablic, who is intensely private and rarely discusses her personal life with colleagues, declined to comment. People familiar with her thinking said she expected to be called to testify publicly on Capitol Hill.
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?”
How Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter and two other Mar-a-Lago cronies are secretly shaping the Trump administration’s veterans policies.
.. shortly after Peter O’Rourke became chief of staff for the Department of Veterans Affairs, he received an email from Bruce Moskowitz with his input on a new mental health initiative for the VA.
.. an informal council that is exerting sweeping influence on the VA from Mar-a-Lago
.. The troika is led by Ike Perlmutter, the reclusive chairman of Marvel Entertainment, who is a longtime acquaintance of President Trump’s. The third member is a lawyer named Marc Sherman. None of them has ever served in the U.S. military or government.
.. They have remained hidden except to a few VA insiders, who have come to call them “the Mar-a-Lago Crowd.”
.. they downplayed their influence, insisting that nobody is obligated to act on their counsel.
.. The Mar-a-Lago Crowd spoke with VA officials daily, the documents show, reviewing all manner of policy and personnel decisions. They prodded the VA to start new programs, and officials travelled to Mar-a-Lago at taxpayer expense to hear their views. “Everyone has to go down and kiss the ring,” a former administration official said.
.. If the bureaucracy resists the trio’s wishes, Perlmutter has a powerful ally: The President of the United States. Trump and Perlmutter regularly talk on the phone and dine together when the president visits Mar-a-Lago. “On any veterans issue, the first person the president calls is Ike,”
.. VA leaders who were at odds with the Mar-A-Lago Crowd were pushed out or passed over.
.. Offering more private healthcare to vets was a signature promise of Trump’s campaign, but at that point he hadn’t decided who should lead an effort that would reverse the VA’s longstanding practices.
.. Perlmutter then recommended Shulkin to Trump
.. Once nominated, Shulkin flew to Mar-a-Lago in early February 2017 to meet with Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz.
.. Moskowitz elaborated on the terms of their relationship. “We do not need to meet in person monthly, but meet face to face only when necessary,” he wrote. “We will set up phone conference calls at a convenient time.”
.. Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman acted like board members pounding a CEO to turn around a struggling company
.. “Everything needs to be run by them,” the first former official said, recalling the process. “They view themselves as making the decisions.”
.. They planned to promote the campaign by ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange around the time of Veterans Day.
The event also turned into a promotional opportunity for Perlmutter’s company. Executives from Marvel and its parent company, Disney, joined Johnson & Johnson as sponsors of the Veterans Day event at the stock exchange.
.. The Mar-a-Lago Crowd grew frustrated with Shulkin, feeling like he wasn’t listening to them, and Perlmutter came to regret recommending Shulkin to Trump in the first place
.. Trump initially nominated White House doctor Ronny Jackson to replace Shulkin, with Pentagon official Robert Wilkie filling in on a temporary basis. On Wilkie’s first day at the VA, Sherman was waiting for him in his office, according to a calendar record.
Within a few weeks, Wilkie made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago.