WASHINGTON — When President Trump had finished mocking the field of Democratic presidential candidates at a rally in Florida this week (“Sleepy Joe,” “Crazy Bernie” and “Boot-edge-edge”), he pivoted abruptly to his intensifying trade war with China. The segue was no accident: Mr. Trump is determined to present himself as tougher on the Chinese than any of his potential challengers in 2020.
“Representing us against President Xi of China?” a sarcastic Mr. Trump said of Pete Buttigieg, the young mayor of South Bend, Ind. “That’d be great.” Taking aim at former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. earlier in the day, he said that China had pulled back from a trade deal because it wanted to wait him out and negotiate with a President Biden or “one of the very weak Democrats, and thereby continue to rip off the United States.”
Election-year politics have crept into Mr. Trump’s trade policy.
For months, the prospect of a landmark trade agreement with China has tantalized Mr. Trump. But now, according to analysts and several former aides, his political calculus seems to have flipped. His recent statements suggest he now believes that demonstrating his toughness with the Chinese and walking away from a deal might well put him in a better position politically than signing one.
Imposing new tariffs on China is likely to hurt American farmers, rattle the stock market and possibly damage the economy. But signing an agreement could expose Mr. Trump to attacks by Democrats, particularly if it is perceived as weak. A hard line, on the other hand, would allow the president to cater to his political base while heading off any Democratic attempts to outflank him as the great protector of American workers.
“The days of being soft on China are over,” said Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House chief strategist for Mr. Trump, who shaped the economic message of his 2016 campaign and has warned repeatedly about the dangers posed by China. “Politics now drives the economics.”
Bashing China is a well-worn election-year tactic for both Democrats and Republicans. But Mr. Trump has upended the usual practice by pursuing actions against China that are every bit as aggressive as his campaign messaging. His protectionist instincts defy mainstream Republican orthodoxy and align him more with progressives like Senators Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts.
Mr. Sanders has vowed to label China a currency manipulator — something Mr. Trump had promised to do during his campaign but was talked out of by advisers. And he has criticized Mr. Biden for voting for permanent normal trade relations with China and for saying, during a recent campaign stop in Iowa: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man.”
“It’s wrong to pretend that China isn’t one of our major economic competitors,” Mr. Sanders said in a tweet. “When we are in the White House, we will win that competition by fixing our trade policies.”
Several of Mr. Trump’s current and former aides — including Mr. Bannon and Peter Navarro, his trade adviser — have long argued that being tough with China and never accepting a deal is the right course. They were countered by more mainstream figures like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow, the president’s chief economic adviser, who warned Mr. Trump that a prolonged trade war would buffet both the economy and financial markets.
In recent weeks, however, Mr. Trump’s campaign advisers have also started to echo the no-compromise approach, according to a former official. That, combined with Mr. Biden’s potential political weakness on China, has shifted Mr. Trump’s thinking away from those who urged a deal.
At his rally this week in Panama City, Fla., Mr. Trump claimed that Mr. Biden was telling supporters that foreign leaders told him they hoped he would defeat Mr. Trump in 2020. “Of course they do,” the president told his crowd, “so they can continue to rip off the United States.”
For Mr. Trump, the decision on whether to abandon trade talks with China will hinge on more than politics. Trade is one of the few issues where he has deeply rooted ideological convictions, dating back to the 1980s. Mr. Trump views his aggressive tactics with Beijing as a way to break a pattern of Chinese dissembling that he contends has characterized China’s negotiations with the last three American presidents.
From the earliest days of Mr. Trump’s presidency, he has viewed a deal as a major political victory and made it one of his top priorities.
By the beginning of this year, he had grown impatient with the pace of negotiations and began pressing his advisers for a deal. In February, as negotiators were still early in the process of drawing up a text, he broached the idea of a “signing summit” with President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, his club in Palm Beach, Fla.
Mr. Trump’s eagerness for a deal encouraged Mr. Mnuchin and Robert Lighthizer, the United States trade representative, to give him overly optimistic reports about their progress, according to a person familiar with the talks, to avoid both his anger and an impulsive tweet or statement that might complicate the talks.
Last Friday evening, after yet another visit by Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Lighthizer to Beijing, the Chinese sent the Americans a diplomatic cable containing a heavily redacted version of the text that the two sides had been working on, with modifications to all seven chapters of the 150-page document. Among other things, the changes walked back commitments to codify some parts of the agreement in Chinese law.
The administration’s hawks saw the changes as proof that China never intended to keep its promises, and the revisions seem to have given Mr. Trump a genuine change of heart that he expressed repeatedly this week.
On Sunday, Mr. Trump fired off a pair of tweets criticizing the Chinese and pledging to increase tariffs, and by Friday he had increased the tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports to 25 percent from 10 percent. And he said he would start a process to levy a 25 percent tariff on virtually every other Chinese export.
It is not clear whether Mr. Trump has reverted from the eager deal maker to the anti-China hawkishness of the 2016 campaign. The risks of an all-out trade war are considerable. Political analysts said voters were likely to judge the president’s actions by how they affected their economic fortunes, not by whether he looked tougher than the Democrats. To some extent, that is true even of Mr. Trump’s supporters.
“They have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because he is addressing the issue,” said David Winston, a strategist who advises Republicans. “Their attitude is, ‘We’re with you in wanting to do this, but ultimately, it’s got to produce a positive impact for the country.’”
Yet there are also political risks for Mr. Trump in agreeing to a deal, particularly if he ends up with an agreement that has the same lack of teeth as those of his predecessors. Democratic candidates would most likely pounce on that as evidence that Mr. Trump’s blustering style does not produce results.
“A weak deal, including one that does not stop cybertheft by China, will be another proof point for Democrats to say that at the end of the day, Trump just doesn’t get the job done,” said Geoff Garin, a veteran Democratic pollster.
Mr. Garin said his firm had conducted research for Democrats that showed undecided and independent voters were troubled by the decline in the income of farmers because of Chinese retaliation for Mr. Trump’s tariffs.
“The China trade situation is particularly important because it ties his impulsive and erratic nature to real-world consequence for Americans, in terms of leaving many workers and farmers worse off than before,” he said.