Recent talks between Trump administration officials and China haven't gone especially well. The White House knows it wants Beijing to meet the president's demands, but no one seems to know what those demands are.
Politico reported the other day that Chinese officials are "increasingly mystified" about what Donald Trump "really wants" when it comes to trade. A minister at the Chinese embassy in Washington, said in a speech last week, "We appeal our American interlocutors to be credible and consistent."
That would probably be easier if top members of Donald Trump's team agreed with each other.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the administration is eyeing a plan that would, among other things, block Chinese companies from investing in U.S. technology companies and restrict U.S. technology exports to China. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin insisted yesterday morning that the White House is not targeting China in the investment-control effort.
But as the WSJ added, that wasn't Team Trump's final word on the subject: White House trade adviser Peter Navarro went on television yesterday afternoon and said the opposite of what Mnuchin said.
During the day, markets plunged on fears of a deepening trade war with China. That prompted White House trade adviser Peter Navarro to appear on cable television to try to calm investors. [...]Mr. Navarro appeared on CNBC at around 3:30 p.m. on Monday to say the investment restrictions were indeed aimed at China -- and not at other countries. "This whole idea that somehow there are going to be investment restrictions to the world, please discount that," Mr. Navarro said, contradicting the Treasury secretary. "What the president has done and stated is that we've got an issue with China coming in and taking our technology," he added.
Soon after, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sided with Mnuchin, but since no one knows whether her perspective is the correct one -- it often is not -- the confusion continued.
At face value, this probably seems like a fight over a relatively obscure issue, but the point isn't necessarily about China and investment-control plans.
Rather, what matters here is that the president and his team aren't able to reassure anyone -- investors, trading partners, business leaders, et al -- because they don't yet seem to agree with one another. On the contrary, they're publicly contradicting one another on yet another issue.
Team Trump struggles to govern for a variety of reasons, but let's not discount the rampant dysfunction at the White House.
Postscript: Speaking of Peter Navarro, it's worth noting from time to time how he entered the president's orbit. Vanity Fair reported last year, "At one point during the campaign, when Trump wanted to speak more substantively about China, he gave Kushner a summary of his views and then asked him to do some research. Kushner simply went on Amazon, where he was struck by the title of one book, Death by China, co-authored by Peter Navarro. He cold-called Navarro, a well-known trade-deficit hawk, who agreed to join the team as an economic adviser."