After days of basking in the flattery of other world leaders, President Trump dished out some of his own Thursday, bestowing kind words and gestures on an unlikely counterpart, China’s Xi Jinping, a communist leader who just tightened his grip on power in a country Trump accused during the campaign of “raping” U.S. workers.
Trump called Xi “a very special man” with whom he has “great chemistry.” He congratulated Xi on the recent Communist Party Congress, which gave new authority to the Chinese leader. And although he challenged Xi on the economy and the “menace” of North Korea, he cast more blame on his American predecessors than on Xi for the trade imbalance.
“I don’t blame China," Trump said at a ceremony involving U.S. and Chinese business leaders. "Who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.”
Xi set the table for the cozy mood by playing the role of gracious host. He unfurled the gilded trappings of the Chinese Communist Party for Trump, complete with goose-stepping soldiers, a 21-gun salute on Tiananmen Square and an elaborate banquet in the Great Hall of the People. At the state dinner, he played a video montage of their time together that included Trump’s granddaughter, Arabella, singing in Chinese, recorded during Xi’s visit to Palm Beach, Fla., in April.
In a series of talks with top party leaders under the gold chandeliers of the Soviet-style hall, Trump pressed China to open its markets to more U.S.-made products and do more to push North Korea to give up nuclear weapons.
"Together we have it in our power to finally liberate this region and the world from this very serious nuclear menace," Trump said when the two made a joint statement to reporters, adding that it will require "collective action."
The two leaders didn’t take questions from reporters, breaking with a precedent from the Obama administration during which the U.S. insisted on allowing questions.
Speaking earlier to the business leaders, Trump talked bluntly about the U.S. trade imbalance with China.
“We have to fix this because it just doesn’t work,” he said. “It is just not sustainable.”
Xi was more detached in his comments than Trump, who spoke in personal terms about what he called a terrific initial meeting Wednesday night and a dinner that went longer than expected because the men were having such a great time.
Later, Trump blamed prior U.S. administrations for creating a trade imbalance, saying, “It's too bad that past administrations allowed it to get so far out of kilter.”
Trump's language, putting the U.S. and China on near-equal footing, could play to Xi's favor. The Chinese president is eager to assert China as a world power rivaling America.
Xi spoke in far different terms, celebrating a Chinese economy that is entering a new phase, from “high-speed growth” to “high-quality growth.”
During the joint statement to the media, the two leaders said they agreed to cooperate on trade imbalance reduction, North Korea and cyber security, as well as on cracking down on illegal shipments to the United States of the powerful opioid fentanyl, which has contributed to a sharp rise in drug overdoses in the U.S.
Throughout, Trump seemed to be making an attempt to play on Xi’s ego in the same way that other world leaders have appealed to his.
“China can fix this problem easily and quickly, and I am calling on China and your great president to hopefully work on it very hard,” he said, referring to North Korea. “I know one thing about your president: If he works on it hard, it will happen.”
Trump seems to have relished his tour of Asia so far, visiting three countries where he was lavished with praise, feted and, above all, treated with respect, at a time in Washington when Trump is constantly feeling disrespected, insulted and under siege.
Arriving at the Great Hall of the People, an enormous edifice completed in 1959 for the 10th anniversary of the Communist Party’s taking of control of China, Trump wore his signature wide, bright-red tie, which matched the dozens of red banners flapping along the roof of the hall.
A massive red vase holding fake flowers several stories tall stood in the middle of the empty square, where in 1989 hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens camped out for six weeks to demand democratic reforms before the government cleared the area in a brutal and deadly crackdown.
After shaking hands with the Chinese and American delegations, Trump and Xi stood together inside a gold reviewing stand with a red-and-yellow awning as a military band played each country’s national anthem.
At one point, just after the two leaders walked past the troops standing in formation, Trump seemed more eager to assert his dominance and take control of the pace of the event. He patted Xi on the back and told the Chinese leader he wanted to “stop to watch” the military band. Xi stood at Trump’s side and waited. “Beautiful,” Trump said.
Trump relished the neat rows of children — jumping and cheering and waving Chinese and U.S. flags.
Along the streets of Beijing, red banners inscribed with white Mao Tse-tung-era Chinese characters encouraged citizens to study and follow "Xi Jinping thought."
The Xi meeting, buffing up one of the important relationships in Trump’s presidency, is likely to be followed by a second summit eliciting intense interest.
Trump is set to head to Da Nang, Vietnam, on Friday for an economic conference also being attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian officials said Trump and Putin will meet there, but U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was noncommittal, saying it was unclear if the two leaders would sit down or talk briefly while standing on the sidelines of the conference.
“If we’re going to have a meeting with them, make sure it’s a meeting that’s meaningful,” Tillerson said, adding that a list of important issues that could come up includes Russian actions in the Syrian conflict and the border dispute in Ukraine.
The meeting is likely to be controversial, given the accelerating investigation at home into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives involving Russian meddling in U.S. elections.
Asked if that matter is something Trump will talk to Putin about, Tillerson said, “It stays on that list.”