WASHINGTON — President Trump has a new best friend in Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump spoke glowingly on Wednesday of a personal connection with Xi that he said had developed during the two days that the Chinese leader visited over the weekend.
“We had a very good bonding. I think we had a very good chemistry together,” Trump said of his time with Xi during a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Trump, who added that he was “very impressed with President Xi,” repeatedly stated that he thought the Chinese leader had good intentions toward the United States. “President Xi wants to do the right thing,” Trump said. “I think he wants to help us with North Korea. … I think he means well, and I think he wants to help.”
There were other signs of goodwill between the Trump administration and China on Wednesday. Trump told the Wall Street Journal that he would reverse his previous pledge to label China a currency manipulator, which had been a cornerstone of his argument that China was cheating the U.S. and depriving American workers of jobs.
As for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man that Trump has often spoken of in equally glowing terms, Wednesday’s assessment was not as kind.
“I don’t know Putin,” Trump said, before pivoting back to praise Xi, as well as NATO itself, in another sign of shifting relations between the White House and Russia.
Standing next to NATO’s top official, Trump said the European alliance that exists to counter Russian aggression was “no longer obsolete,” reversing himself on a term he’d used as recently as January to describe the group.
In Moscow, meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Putin for nearly two hours before declaring that “the current state of U.S.-Russia relations is at a low point.”
Trump himself added that “we may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia.”
Trump and Putin have taken opposing viewpoints in Syria, where the Russians are backing President Bashar Assad in a years-old civil war. When Assad used chemical weapons in an attack on his own people, Trump responded by authorizing missile strikes on the Syrian airfield where the chemical attacks originated.
It was a big change from just a few months ago, when Trump praised Putin for his muted response to sanctions put in place against Russia by then-President Barack Obama. Obama imposed the sanctions because of a CIA report that showed Russia was involved with the hacking of Democratic email accounts that were then leaked publicly in an attempt to disrupt and undermine the presidential election.
At the time, Trump said on Twitter that Putin had made a “great move” by not retaliating and added, “I always knew he was very smart,” words that the Russian Embassy retweeted.
Throughout the presidential election, Trump often spoke highly of Putin. But since taking office, Russian meddling in U.S. affairs has become a cloud over Trump’s presidency. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned over undisclosed contact with a Russian official.
The reality of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, which Trump has downplayed, is now widely accepted, even among Trump administration officials. “As to the question of the interference with the election, that is fairly well established in the United States,” Tillerson said Wednesday at a press conference in Moscow, where he stood next to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “And it is a serious issue. … We are mindful of the seriousness of that particular interference in our elections. And I’m sure that Russia is mindful of it as well.”
As positively as Trump has spoken of Putin and Russia before he became president, he was just as hostile toward China. “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing,” Trump said a year ago in reference to China’s trade and currency policies that allow it to export a massive supply of cheap goods to the U.S.
But Xi’s visit to Trump’s private club in Florida over the weekend cemented a change in Trump’s approach to China that was already underway. The U.S. needs China’s help to contain North Korea’s rogue regime and also can’t simply cede the field to China when it comes to trade in Asia. As a result, Trump and Xi have accelerated the frequency of their communication. The two leaders discussed the North Korea issue in a phone call Tuesday evening, as a follow-up to their two-day summit over the weekend.
Still, there were not substantial public commitments made by Xi regarding North Korea over the weekend, but Trump cited China’s reduction of coal imports from North Korea as a positive step, even though China reached that decision in late February.
A senior Trump White House official said that the president’s personal rapport with Xi was key to getting China to abstain from voting with Russia at the United Nations on Wednesday. Russia and Bolivia blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria and Assad for the chemical weapons attack.
The senior Trump official called China’s abstention a “victory for all civilized peoples” and credited the Mar-a-Lago meetings with solidifying the two leaders’ suddenly warm relationship.
The interaction between Trump’s grandchildren and the guests had “a big effect on the relationship,” the senior official said. Ivanka Trump’s 5-year-old daughter, Arabella, performed a song in Mandarin for the Chinese president and his wife, Peng Liyuan.
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