Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, has urged other US officials to avoid escalating the trade dispute with China to a level that could jeopardise the historic June 12 summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
Mr Pompeo, who is spearheading the North Korea talks, is worried that the chaotic approach the US team is taking towards the China trade issue could annoy Xi Jinping, the Chinese president who has more leverage over Kim Jong Un than any world leader.
Trump administration officials have spent recent months locked in tough debates about how to reach a deal with Beijing that would cut the US trade deficit and propel structural reform in China. But while those debates have largely been left to officials with a trade portfolio, Mr Pompeo has recently joined the fray, according to four people familiar with interventions that the new secretary of state has made.
China has spent the past 17 months learning how to deal with the Trump administration and the mercurial approach taken by a president who likes to describe Mr Xi as his “friend”. But Chinese officials have become more frustrated that agreements made with US officials — and in one case with the president himself — are sometimes undone when Mr Trump is swayed by internal opponents of the deal.
Since joining the administration as CIA director, Mr Pompeo has developed one of the closest bonds with the president and is viewed as having more influence with him than the other cabinet officials. But his intervention comes in an area that was one of Mr Trump’s signature campaign themes — that China was “raping” the US because Washington had done bad deals that now needed to be fixed.
One person briefed on White House discussions said Mr Pompeo was “weighing in only to the extent that it affects” preparations for the summit. Another person said Mr Pompeo was also arguing that the US already had to deal with North Korea and Iran, and did not need another crisis to handle.
The people familiar with his role said it was unclear if Mr Pompeo had used his clout with the president by expressing his views directly, or was making his point to other cabinet officers, such as Steven Mnuchin, Treasury secretary, and Robert Lighthizer, US trade representative.
His involvement shows how the trade divisions have drawn rare interventions from other parts of the government. Jim Mattis, the US defence secretary, unsuccessfully intervened several times over the past year to try to block national security tariffs from being levied against steel and aluminium products from US allies, including the EU, Canada and Japan. But Mr Trump last week imposed the tariffs on the EU, Canada and Mexico, firing the first shot in an Atlantic trade war.
The trade efforts have also blurred the lines in Congress where Republicans have grown increasingly concerned about the impact of the president’s trade policy on foreign policy.
Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this week introduced legislation to limit presidential powers to employ a little-used 1962 statute that Mr Trump has been using to impose the steel and aluminium tariffs. Mr Trump has also launched what would be a much larger investigation under the same statute into whether car imports threaten national security.
“Making claims regarding national security to justify what is inherently an economic question not only harms the very people we all want to help and impairs relations with our allies but also could invite our competitors to retaliate,” said Mr Corker, who is from Tennessee, a major producer of whiskey, one of the products targeted for retaliation by the EU, Mexico and others.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi