Tensions between Mnuchin and China hawk Navarro cloud Trump team's trade talks with Chinese officials

Key Points
  • High-level trade talks between the United States and China start in Washington without Peter Navarro, President Trump's hawkish advisor.
  • The world's two largest economies are trying to defuse escalating trade tensions.
  • Trump has long pledged to crack down on what he calls unfair Chinese trade practices.
Bilateral trade talks with China kick off in DC

High-level trade talks between the United States in China start in Washington on Thursday without Peter Navarro, President Donald Trump's hawkish advisor, after confusion earlier this week about his participation.

After some confusion over his role in the events, Navarro did not attend a working dinner Thursday night, a source who declined to be named told CNBC. He also was not part of the official meetings that began earlier in the day at the Treasury Department, according to a source familiar.

However, a White House official insisted Navarro would take part in some of the talks Thursday, though not some of the meetings including higher-level officials. Navarro has pushed for a tough response to China, which has put him at odds with counterparts in the Trump administration.

On Wednesday night, the trade advisor told associates he would attend the talks after originally being excluded, a source said. One source of questions around Navarro's participation was an alleged episode during the American delegation's early May trip to Beijing that set him at odds with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

During one trade meeting at which Chinese officials talked at length about history and international relations, Navarro used an expletive in telling his Chinese counterparts he did not need a history lesson, according to a source briefed on the exchange.

However, another source with personal knowledge of the discussions said Navarro did not "curse out" Chinese officials and described the bilateral discussions as "cordial." The person suggested that the story about Navarro started as part of a coordinated "shivving campaign" that points back to Mnuchin.

Navarro has problems with how Mnuchin has negotiated with Chinese officials, a source familiar with the discussions said. The person said Navarro took issue with Mnuchin canceling team trade discussions in Beijing and negotiating with the Chinese delegation himself. The trade advisor has also taken issue with the path of the talks, believing the Treasury secretary is not doing enough to protect U.S. intellectual property, the source said.

White House economic adviser Peter Navarro (C) walks through a hotel lobby as he heads to the Diaoyutai State Guest House to meet Chinese officials for ongoing trade talks in Beijing on May 4, 2018.
Nicholas Asfouri | AFP | Getty Images

The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the apparent tension between Navarro and Mnuchin.

The uncertainty over Navarro's role clouds critical Washington trade talks between the U.S. and China, which follow a separate round of negotiations in Beijing earlier this month. The world's two largest economies are looking to defuse escalating tensions that have prompted fears about heavy tariffs and a potential trade war.

In a statement Wednesday, the White House said Mnuchin would lead the talks, along with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. The White House added that "additional senior administration officials" would attend, but did not name Navarro.

On Wednesday, a White House official told CNBC that "Peter is going to be participating in the event" and he is "part of the talks."

Trump has long pledged to crack down on China for alleged unfair trade practices and theft of U.S. intellectual property by Chinese companies. But he seeks to do so without retaliatory measures from China that threatened to damage the U.S. agricultural industry.

According to a list obtained by CNBC, China's delegation in Washington includes more than a dozen high-ranking government officials managing the country's central bank, agricultural policy and telecommunications industry.

— CNBC's Eamon Javers contributed to this report

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Navarro did not attend a working dinner Thursday night.

WATCH: Conflicting reports about Navarro's role in China talks

Conflicting reports about Navarro's role in China talks