PoliticsForeign Policy


Obama's Former Advisor Says U.S. Would Lose Trade War To China

Ben Rhodes spoke with Newsy's Chance Seales about leading foreign policy challenges facing President Trump.
Posted at 5:32 PM, Jun 15, 2018

Ben Rhodes worked in President Obama's White House for his entire presidency. He served as Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser. He talked to Newsy about the issues facing the Trump administration. 

Chance Seales, Host of “The Why:” Deputy National Security Advisor under President Obama. You have been in the room time and time again on these events that literally create history. I want to get your top line advice on a few nations today as they stand with President Trump. First, North Korea. We saw the summit. But then you get to the issue of things like verification. What would your top-line advice be for President Trump right now on North Korea?

Ben Rhodes, Former National Security Advisor: Well, I don’t think that they were very clear about what they wanted to get out of that summit. Because what they ended up getting was essentially commitments that North Korea has given before-- to give up their nuclear weapons. Without any timeline or process by which that’s going to happen. What I would be advising them is, number one: you need international inspectors to get into North Korea and have access to all of their nuclear program.

SEALES: Verification.

RHODES: Verification. Because what’s happened in the past is the North Koreans invite some international journalists in. They make some big show of blowing up some building, but all their nuclear weapons are somewhere else. And you can’t trust them to be the ones to verify that they’re getting rid of their nuclear weapons. So, the most important thing is verification from international inspectors. And the second thing would be a clear timeline for them to get rid of their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, neither of those things emerged from the summit in Singapore.

SEALES: I heard a lot of intelligence officials say, “Yeah we’ve heard this before.” This might’ve been slightly tweaked, maybe a little bit beefed up-- but not really. Whereas I saw President Trump say today to a reporter-- I did this because I didn’t want to see your family get blown up. Do you think that this is at least some incremental step in the right direction because we’ve seen these tests diminish or stop?

RHODES: Well, I would certainly rather we be pursuing diplomacy than be on the escalation ramp that we were with North Korea earlier in the Trump administration. That’s good. The problem I have is: Trump gave away some very important things. Our military exercises with South Korea, which North Korea hates. Which China also hates. The fact of that meeting, the legitimacy it confers on Kim Jong-Un. That was a lot to give for very little in return. So, diplomacy is good but you have to do it the right way. I didn’t feel like they had prepared for that meeting, knew what they wanted to get out of that meeting and basically they ended up giving a lot for very little in return.

SEALES: China. We’ve gone, it seems like into a trade war. We saw it today, the President say: we are doing $50 billion in tariffs on some Chinese tech. And if you look at the issue, they are stealing a lot of American intellectual property, things that cost billions to create. And they basically just take it. What’s the advice on China?

RHODES: The advice on China is-- if you want to get tough on Chinese trade practices, you have to do some things that they’re not doing. You want the world on your side and so what I don’t understand about Trump has done, at the same time as he’s picking this fight with China, he’s also picking fights on trade with our allies. In Europe and Canada and Japan. You want to go into the fight on China in a united front with all of our allies. You’ll be in a much stronger position to stand up to China if you’re not alone. That’s the first thing. And the second thing is: I would like to see Trump work through the international system. You know, we can bring enforcement cases against Chinese practices through the World Trade Organization. Start there before you go the blunt instrument of a trade war.

SEALES: A lot of people say that’s too weak.

RHODES: No, but here’s the problem. We’re not going to win a trade war with China for a simple reason. They don’t have to worry about politics. If we do something that hurts 100 million Chinese people, Xi Jinping can weather that storm. If he starts reciprocating and hurting Americans, our politics is going to be responsive to that and we’re going to back down.

SEALES: So they have us over a barrel when it comes to things like tech.

RHODES: When it comes to stuff like a tariff war, yes. But I think on tech: if you can bring the rest of the world around to isolating China, that’s going to be more impactful than us going one-on-one with China. If it’s the world versus China, then I think you can get them to make concessions. If it’s just us one-on-one with China, I think it’s going to be much more difficult.

SEALES: This Inspector General report out of the FBI. This is bad. It looks bad. Yes, the IG said that bias did not affect the outcome of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation. But it didn’t say that it wasn’t introduced during the process. You look at one of these employees texting another, asking-- he’s not going to be president, right? Speaking of President Trump. And the other one says: “We will stop it.” Speaking of the Trump presidency. Again, this is just one text exchange. Do you think the FBI potentially meddled in the election, even if unintentionally?

RHODES: No, look, the FBI meddled ironically in a way that hurt Hillary Clinton.

SEALES: How so?

RHODES: If you compare the impact of that text exchange with the impact of Jim Comey’s press conference of essentially trashing Hillary Clinton in the summer, and then the letter that Jim Comey released a few days before the election-- there’s no question which one had a bigger impact. I mean, look, these agencies are made up of human beings, right? Every human being has their own opinions. The fact that these two people had a text exchange had no apparent impact on what the FBI did. The fact that Jim Comey released that letter a few days before the election clearly hurt Hillary Clinton. So, we’re here arguing about what these two anonymous FBI agents may have been saying to each other on text, but there’s no evidence that did anything to impact the election. There’s a lot of evidence that what Jim Comey did in the run-up to the election ended up hurting Hillary Clinton.