Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin appeared to surprise President Donald Trump on Monday when he disclosed the United States had asked a Chinese trade delegation to cancel its trip to Montana and Nebraska to visit American farmers last week.
“That was actually at our request they delayed that,” said Mnuchin, who was seated near the President and other Cabinet members including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross during a bilateral press conference with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah e-Sisi in New York.
Mnuchin explained that the request was made due to a timing issue, and that those agricultural purchases would be made at a later time.
“We didn’t want there to be any confusion,” said Mnuchin. “They have started buying agriculture. They are going to reschedule that at a different time. The timing didn’t work. But that was, that was purely at our request.”
Trump interrupted to ask why his own government prompted the delay.
“Why was that our request, just out of curiosity?” Trump asked.
The secretary, one of Trump’s top trade negotiators, repeated that he “didn’t want confusion around the trade issues.”
Trump replied, “Yeah, but I want them to buy farm products.”
Mnuchin replied, “There was no confusion. We want them to buy agriculture. They’ve committed to buy agriculture, and they’re doing that.”
Trump repeated: “They committed to buy a lot of agriculture and they have started.” He added, “And we should get them over there as soon as possible so they can start buying.”
The exchange echoed an on-camera meeting several months ago involving US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, in which Trump insisted that Lighthizer stop using the term “memorandum of understanding” to describe documents under negotiation.
A Treasury spokesperson did not immediately comment on Monday’s exchange.
Chinese importers have bought at least 720,000 tons of soybeans over the past two weeks, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
The visit by the Beijing delegation was expected to happen following deputy-level discussions between US and Chinese negotiators last week in Washington ahead of principal level talks next month but were later canceled.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue confirmed the visit last week, saying, “I think they are trying to build good will and I welcome that.”
The Montana Farm Bureau was informed of the change by email from the embassy, which stated: “According to an updated agenda of the Chinese delegation VM Han and his team have to return to China earlier than previously planned therefore they have to make their visit to beautiful Montana in the future.”