‘Not a Magical Date:’ Trump’s Leeway on China Tariffs Deadline Undermines His Top Trade Official

February 20, 2019, 12:33 PM UTC

U.S. trade officials have threatened to enact tariffs on China on March 1, barring a deal between the two economic powers. Now U.S. President Donald Trump has reiterated that the deadline is squishy. It’s “not a magical date,” he told reporters on Tuesday, in a statement that undercuts the stance of his top trade official.

The U.S. and China have been ratcheting up, then ratcheting down their rhetoric, tariffs, and threats of more tariffs for the better part of a year. Just last week, Trump told reporters that there was “a possibility” that he’d extend the cut-off date, depending on how trade negotiations go.

The statements undermine his top trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer, who said in late January: “The deadline is March 1. That is the deadline.”

“If the deadline is extended, [China] could be asked for a great deal more in exchange for a little time,” Cornell University economist Eswar Prasad told the Wall Street Journal. That could be to the advantage of the U.S. But a delay might also undermine the credibility of the negotiating team.

The U.S. extended the January 1 deadline to March 1 after Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in December. “Both sides believe that the principled agreement reached between the two presidents has effectively prevented the further expansion of economic frictions between the two countries,” Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said after that meeting.

In his remarks to reporters Tuesday, Trump said, “They are very complex talks. They’re going very well.” Stocks rose late in the day.