Mr Trump – who is again seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 despite facing a host of legal issues and investigations both criminal and civil arising from his chaotic first term in the White House – struck a combative note in his dealings with Beijing throughout his presidency, kicking off an economic face-off that saw each side slap retaliatory import tariffs on billions of dollars’ worth of each others’ goods.
Memorably, during an address to reporters from the South Lawn of the White House in August 2019, Mr Trump looked to the heavens and pronounced himself “the chosen one”, suggesting he had been anointed by God to tackle Chinese economic dominance.
“This isn’t my trade war, this is a trade war that should have taken place a long time ago,” he told the assembled journalists. “Somebody had to do it, so I’m taking on China on trade. And you know what? We’re winning.”
The session was filmed at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago mansion in Palm Beach, Florida – just prior to Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg’s announcement of his indictment against Mr Trump earlier this month over hush money payments allegedly paid out on the latter’s behalf – and was intended to promote the new book Letters to Trump but was largely dominated by foreign policy.
Shifting gears dramatically from a discussion about the decline of his friendship with chat show host Oprah Winfrey to his relations with fellow world leaders, Mr Trump told Levin: “President Xi was very close to me. He was right here. He was right in this room. We spent a whole weekend together at Mar-a-Lago. We had tremendous talks.
“I made an incredible trade deal that – Covid came along, I don’t even talk about it – it was one of the greatest trade deals ever made. It gave our farmers and manufacturers $50 billion. I got $28 billion cash for our farmers where they literally wrote out cheques – China did, nobody wants to talk about it.
“That’s why the farmers like me. That why I’m not losing Nebraska and I’m not losing Iowa because, they got, I mean nobody even thought it was possible, $28 billion I got because they were taken advantage of and hurt by China and I got it back in the form of taxes, tariffs and other things and with hundred of billions [of dollars] left over.”
He continued: “No other president got 10 cents and yet I got along with President Xi incredibly well but I was stopping the rampage. It was the rape of America, that’s what it was, it was the rape of America what China was doing to us and we had people leading that had no clue, they had no clue.
“I’m telling you not 10 cents did we get from China, I got hundred of billions of dollars and I gave $28 billion of it to the farmers because they were really taken advantage of and hurt by China.”
Despite Mr Trump’s tub-thumping, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) noted in a recent blog post that the tariffs he introduced under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, many of which have been retained by Joe Biden, “not only failed to achieve their objectives, but have hurt US businesses and consumers along the way”.
Important exports like soybeans and seafood have been hit by higher costs and increased competition and have lost market access as a result of the tariffs, the CFR reported, adding that ordinary Americans had picked up the bill for the standoff while China’s aggressive business practices had not been curtailed.
Elsewhere in the interview, the former president hit some familiar beats, assuring Levin that his recent appearance at a rally in Waco, Texas, on 25 March had drawn a “record-setting crowd”, warned that America had never been in worse shape and argued that neither Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nor the high rate of inflation would have occurred if he had secured a second term in the Oval Office.
He also argued that Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, “should be court-martialed” over the chaotic US military withdrawal from Afghanistan in summer 2021, complaining that Biden administration incompetence had since enabled the country to become a major global arms dealer.