Tillerson: Trump’s Flattery Of China On Trade Was ‘Tongue-In-Cheek’

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President Donald Trump wasn’t being totally serious when he gave China “great credit” for taking “advantage” of the U.S. on trade, according to America’s top diplomat.

Speaking with reporters at the World China Hotel on Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the President’s remarks were more “tongue-in-cheek,” but “there was also a lot of truth to it.”

During a speech before Chinese business leaders on Thursday, Trump said the economic playing field between the two countries was “very one-sided and unfair.” But Trump said he doesn’t blame China for that.

“After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit,” he said, remarks that are a far-cry from the way Trump characterized China’s trade policies with the U.S. on the campaign trail. At one point he claimed China was “raping” the U.S., referencing America’s more than $1 trillion debt to China because of an imbalance in imports and exports between the two countries.

When asked about Trump’s change in tone on China, Tillerson said he was likely being ironic and said it’s been an “issue that has just grown over time.”

I think what the President was just reflecting on is, look, we are where we are because previous administrations, whether through benign neglect — which is my own characterization of it — or for whatever reasons, allowed this to happen, and allowed it to get so out of balance that now it’s not an easy thing to rebalance,” he said.

“I think his characterization of not blaming a large developing country from doing what they can do, you know, I feel the same way about a number of actions that countries take, if the door is open, you’re going to walk through it. And I think in this case the President was simply saying, look, previous administrations have kind of left this trade door open,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson’s comments come as Trump receives criticism back home for not being tough enough on China.