Ex-Reagan advisor John Rutledge on China talks: 'It's possible for a trade deal to get done right now'

Key Points
  • Ex-Reagan advisor John Rutledge discusses what he told top Trump administration officials in a private meeting about China.
  • "What I told the group was that you have to understand that China is not Kansas," the investment chief tells CNBC's "Closing Bell."
  • Even so, "it's possible for a trade deal to get done right now," Rutledge says.
Possible for trade deal to get done right now, says CIO

Former Reagan advisor John Rutledge thinks "it's possible for a trade deal to get done right now" despite the stark differences he sees between the United States and China, he told CNBC on Friday.

The Safanad investment chief confirmed on CNBC's "Closing Bell" that he recently had a "private meeting with the Cabinet" to advise them on the ongoing negotiations between the two countries.

He said he was unable to reveal the meeting's attendees, who are rumored to be top White House advisors Larry Kudlow, Kevin Hassett, Mick Mulvaney, Robert Lighthizer and Ivanka Trump.

"What I told the group was that you have to understand that China is not Kansas," Rutledge said. "Their institution's different, their politics is different and so forth. But I really think that it's possible for a trade deal to get done right now. Both sides need it, and the Chinese economy, in particular, is very weak, and they have a credit crisis underway that's really causing damage to the private firms. So if you're going to get something done, this is the right time to do it."

Rutledge, who also advised former President George W. Bush, laid out some of his predictions for the deal, which he said would likely be finalized by the U.S. and Chinese delegations rather than the two presidents.

He envisioned the two sides scrubbing the March 2 tariff deadline and presenting a deal "that includes easy things" like the Chinese government agreeing to buy more U.S. soybeans and to fix how it handles U.S. companies' intellectual property. CNBC confirmed Friday that China has committed to buying $1.2 trillion in U.S. goods.

"What we're not going to see is [an agreement for China to] give up industrial policy, abandon the [state-owned enterprises] and so forth," he said. "And, you know, they're having a constructive discussion, I think, about ZTE, Huawei, telecom, 5G and all that."

And, according to Rutledge, any meeting between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be more for show than anything else.

"I think it is up to the teams to do this and that the presidents will meet in March for a photo op, not for a deal," he said. "It's important for both guys in a negotiation to go back home and say they won."

Positive trade headlines drove stocks higher on Friday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average logging a 9-week winning streak and retaking the 26,000 milestone. U.S. tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods are set to rise to 25 percent from 10 percent on March 2 if the countries are unable to make a deal.