For weeks, trade has taken a back seat to Black Lives Matter protests and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, however, trade was back on the front page with stunning charges from John Bolton, the former national security adviser, about an alleged attempt by President Donald Trump to manipulate U.S.-China trade negotiations for his personal political gain. This past week also saw U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer testifying before Congress about the Trump administration’s trade agenda, while both U.S. and European officials threatened an escalation in their dispute over digital services taxes. The overall message from all this was clear: The Trump administration’s mercantilist trade policy will continue despite the worst economic situation since the Great Depression.
In the midst of Lighthizer’s congressional testimony, the news broke of Bolton’s claim in his upcoming book that Trump had tried to elicit the help of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, in getting reelected. It’s not new for Trump to call on China, and other trading partners, to buy more agricultural products to mollify a core constituency in politically important U.S. states. But during the G-20 summit last summer in Osaka, Trump allegedly linked U.S.-China trade directly with partisan politics and his reelection calculations. According to Bolton, Trump noted the importance of farmers in his electoral base and pleaded with Xi “to ensure he’d win” by buying more soybeans and wheat. Beyond the blatant corruption, what makes the incident odd is that Trump seems to have forgotten how his own actions and misguided trade wars created the farm state woes in the first place.
Trump has characteristically just called Bolton “a liar.” Lighthizer, in his testimony before congressional committees last Wednesday, said that he was in the room at the time the incident allegedly happened and said, “I don’t believe it ever happened. … Would I have recollected something as crazy as that? Of course I would recollect it.” Yet Lighthizer’s refutation was qualified—he didn’t “believe” it happened—and the story, while shocking, is fully consistent with Trump’s previous pleas for China to buy more farm products, or for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to “do us a favor” by digging up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden.