As the Trump administration sets out to strike a trade deal with China, confusion surrounds the role one of the president's more hawkish advisors will play in the talks.
The prominence U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has in the negotiations could help to determine whether the White House takes a more aggressive or conciliatory approach to China. Top Trump economic advisor Larry Kudlow told reporters Monday that the 90-day timetable will start Jan. 1, but the White House later issued a correction saying the timetable starts Dec. 1. They agreed to a trade war truce on Saturday at the G-20 meeting in Argentina.
Lighthizer, a 71-year-old who joined the Trump administration after decades as an international trade lawyer, leads the agency charged with creating trade deals and resolving disputes. He headed arduous talks with Canadian and Mexican officials that led to a revised North American free trade agreement. Lighthizer also backed the tariffs on Chinese imports that the White House deployed as it pushed Beijing to address alleged trade abuses.
Earlier Monday, confusion reigned as details about the meeting between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and how any agreement would be managed, dribbled out. China had no such problem. Vice Premier Liu He has headed the talks for Beijing's side during the Trump administration.
Another Trump trade advisor Peter Navarro — a hard-liner who advocates a harsh approach to trade policy with China — said Lighthizer would lead negotiations. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow both quashed the idea of a nominal leader, instead casting the negotiations as a group effort led by Trump himself.
However, Kudlow said later Monday that Lighthizer would "take the lead on the negotiations and on the enforcement part" while Mnuchin handles currency manipulation and other topics.
Regardless of whether the trade representative heads the talks, the public contradictions over his role once again reflect the disparate elements of Trump's economic team.
The more free trade wing in Mnuchin and Kudlow is often at odds with the protectionist elements represented by Lighthizer and Navarro.
While Trump appears conciliatory now, his outlook could change when the next round of talks plays out — and that could affect whether he decides to reignite the trade war with increased tariff rates or new duties.