Donald Trump

Donald Trump says ‘powerful’ Xi Jinping ‘could be better’ with North Korea in joint press conference with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 6:21am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 1:22pm

US President Donald Trump jokingly said that Chinese President Xi Jinping “could be better” in his dealings with North Korea on Wednesday, following a press conference hosted with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the close of two days of discussion between the two leaders.

Trump used the conference to publicly thank Xi for having “powerfully ... clogged up the border” between China and North Korea, then began what appeared to be a bizarre comedy skit recreating banter between the two leaders.

“[Xi] has been terrific,” Trump said. “Can he be better? I always say yes, he can be better. I said, ‘President, you are great. Can you be better? Yes.’”

Trump then paused, looked away and added: “But, uh, he’s been very good.”

On the topic of North Korea, Trump also declined to say whether he would set any conditions on his impending meeting with its leader, Kim Jong-un, but said negotiations were underway. 

And both he and Abe made it clear that no deal had been yet reached on whether Japan would join other US allies in being exempted from US tariffs on steel and aluminium, and that a trade deal would have to be reached between the two countries.

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Pressed on whether he would speak to Kim while three Americans are still being detained by North Korea, Trump acknowledged the death of Otto Warmbier, an American student who fell fatally ill as a captive of the country, as “a sad event” - but gave no details of whether their release would be demanded. 

He had earlier voiced support for Japan’s campaign for the release of its citizens from North Korea, but gave no suggestion that their release might be a condition for the meeting either.

Trump then blamed past administrations for not doing enough to contain Kim, and thanked Xi, adding: “He doesn’t want to see a North Korea, or any Korea, that has nuclear weapons, either... so he’s also fighting for China when it comes to this.”

If he felt a summit with Kim was not “fruitful”, Trump said, he would “respectfully leave the meeting and keep doing what we’re doing”. He then boasted about boosting ticket sales for the recent South Korean Olympic Games.

Much of the conference was taken up by talk of trade. The US has made exceptions for steel and aluminium tariffs for many of its allies, but not for Japan - making the possible easing or removal of the tariffs a key point in the leaders’ discussions over the past two days.

However, those talks don’t yet seem to have changed anything yet.

Trump says US has had ‘extremely high-level’ talks with North Korea

Abe repeated his government’s position that steel and aluminium products from Japan would not impede upon US security - the reason given for the trade tariffs by the US - and that he would continue to impress that upon the US.

Trump then interjected to boast of the money that has “flowed into US coffers” since tariffs were placed, helping the remaining US aluminium companies. He also said that unemployment in the US was “at an all-time low”.

Abe said several times that he was pursuing “open and fair economic development in the Indo-Pacific region” with “free and fair reciprocal trade deals”, but that the details were under discussion between the countries. 

That wording echoed remarks made by Trump earlier in the day, when he broke with political niceties to urge Abe - in front of television cameras - to do more to make trade “free, fair and reciprocal”.

Asked about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multilateral trade agreement that Trump pulled out of at the start of his administration, but has now voiced interest in rejoining, Abe said that Japan maintained that it would be “the best for both countries”.

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Trump said: “I don’t want to go back into TPP, but if they offer us a deal that I can’t refuse on behalf of the American people I would do it - but I prefer bilateral better.”

“What I really prefer is negotiating a one-on-one deal with Japan, and that’s what we’re doing now.”

Abe also defended the presence of US military in Japan - an issue that has been increasingly contentious over the past few years.

Trump was also asked whether he would fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein - the men behind the ongoing investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 election campaign and Russia - or whether he considered it too much trouble.

Trump said that there was “no collusion with Russia - other than by the Democrats”, before rehashing a string of claims of conspiracy between the FBI and Democrat Party that he had made during his 2016 election run. “Nobody has been more transparent than I have - instructed our lawyers to be totally transparent,” he said.

He then noted that people had been saying that he would fire Mueller and Rosenstein for three-to-five months, “and they’re still here”. He did not deny planning to fire them in the future, or directly answer the question.

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When asked about his relationship with Moscow, Trump promised that “There has been nobody tougher on Russia than President Donald Trump.” 

He cited increases in military funding and a “sad” recent clash between US forces and Russian mercenaries in Syria as examples. Moscow denied at the time any involvement in the mercenaries activities.

But, he added before leaving the stage: “If we can get along with China, and if we can get along with Russia, and if we can get along with other nations, that’s a good thing not a bad thing. If we got along with other nations that’s good not bad - remember that.”

At the start of his speech, Trump gave condolences to the family of former first lady Barbara Bush, and reiterated the righteousness of the weekend’s air strikes on Syria by the US, UK and France.

He then promised a “bright path” for North Korea when it achieves “verifiable” and “irreversible” denuclearisation, and called on Kim Jong-un to release Japanese families believed to have been kidnapped by North Korea.

“We’re going to do everything we can to bring them back to Japan … that I promise,” Trump said.

In his own speech, Abe also paid tribute to Bush before bringing up the “intolerable” launching of North Korean missiles one year previously, during the two leaders’ last meeting in Mar-a-Lago.

Opinion: Shinzo Abe must remember that actions speak louder than words

He said that Trump’s promise at the time to stand by Japan was “etched on my mind” and commended Trump on his strong leadership then and in the year since.

He echoed Trump’s demand for the denuclearisation, saying that Japan and the US had agreed to maintain maximum pressure on North Korea and demand “concrete actions” from the rogue state.

Abe also said that he had “candid” discussions with Trump on economic issues, and boasted of increased Japanese investment in the US. 

Earlier in the day, Trump issued a blunt face-to-face challenge to Abe in full view of the cameras, demanding “free, fair and reciprocal” terms on trade.

“We have a massive deficit with Japan,” he said, pointing to passenger plane and fighter jet orders that could plug the gap before railing about unfair practices.

“The word ‘reciprocal’ is that when you have a car come in, we charge you a tax. When we have a car go through Japan, which aren’t allowed to go there, we have to take down the barriers and we have to pay the same tax,” Trump said.

“But that goes for other countries too,” he said, vowing to “weed” the deficit down.

The blunt talk will appeal to Trump’s domestic political base, which was promised a better economic deal and a tougher “America First” stance under his administration.

Abe is struggling with languishing approval ratings and, while keen to stress a good relationship with Trump, would want to avoid being seen as a lapdog.