arrived at the White House on Wednesday, he had no idea how the meeting with President
When asked on his flight from Brussels whether he was ready, after having pored through piles of documents stacked in blue folders, the European Commission president smiled and said: “No. We’ll have to see how it goes.”
Once Mr. Juncker entered the Oval Office, it was clear Mr. Trump was in a mood to negotiate, said a senior European Union official who was present. Mr. Trump, who typically entertains a question or two from reporters during Oval Office visits, took none, looking instead to dive into discussions with the visiting delegation from the EU’s executive arm.
What followed between the two leaders ushered in a potentially significant de-escalation of trade tensions between the U.S. and EU, after months in which the Trump administration had applied tariffs on European steel, and threatened more. The resulting agreement was vague, but the two sides agreed to pursue a range of possibilities—including increased U.S. exports of natural gas and soybeans—that might address the trans-Atlantic trade imbalance.
In recent international meetings, such as the Group of Seven summit in Canada, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Brussels, Mr. Trump grabbed headlines with an argumentative approach. But on Wednesday, the American president was “charming, well-briefed” and “made an effort” to reach a deal with his European counterpart, the senior EU official said.
Mr. Juncker grabbed the opportunity to argue that both sides need to refrain from further punitive tariffs or they would foolishly harm themselves.
“If you want to be stupid,” he told Mr. Trump, “I can be stupid, as well.”
Backing up his points, Mr. Juncker flipped through more than a dozen colorful cue cards with simplified explainers, the senior EU official said. Each card had at most three figures about a specific topic, such as trade in cars or standards for medical devices.
“We knew this wasn’t an academic seminar,” the EU official said. “It had to be very simple.”
The Europeans had an ally on Mr. Trump’s team in White House, chief economic adviser
On Wednesday morning, before the meeting, he had told the television program “Fox & Friends,” “I just say, keep an open mind—you might be surprised by the outcome of this meeting.”
Mr. Kudlow had met with a member of Mr. Juncker’s team the previous evening and hinted at a possible deal over Diet Cokes at a D.C. hotel.
Still, when EU Trade Commissioner
met with U.S. Trade Representative
on Wednesday morning, odds of an agreement looked remote. Mr. Lighthizer seemed unaware of the overture made by Mr. Kudlow the night before and insisted on issues that were a no-go for the Europeans, such as opening the entire agricultural sector to U.S. firms, the EU official said.
Mr. Kudlow seemed to “have the ear of the president,” the EU official said.
Mr. Juncker stuck closely to the negotiating mandate handed to him by leaders of big EU countries including Germany, France and the Netherlands. Germany, which is heavily dependent on exports, was from the onset open to a trade arrangement, including abolishing EU tariffs on U.S. car imports. France, meanwhile, was vehemently opposed to opening EU agricultural markets.
Mr. Juncker told Mr. Trump and Mr. Lighthizer that any talk of including agriculture would kill prospects of a deal. He countered with a threat to drag public procurement into negotiations, which would question the Buy American Act, a nonstarter for the U.S. side.
At one point, talk shifted to Europe buying more U.S. natural gas, a move EU leaders had agreed to take back in May, even though U.S. gas, shipped liquefied, is as much as 20% more expensive than gas Europe buys via pipeline from Russia. The Europeans said U.S. companies need licenses to sell overseas, which inflates prices. Mr. Trump proposed scrapping licenses, the EU official said. Administration officials jumped in to nix the idea, saying licenses are vital for national security. Instead, the two sides agreed to negotiate license exemptions.
When a deal looked near after almost three hours of talks, Mr. Trump said he wanted to hold a joint news conference and announce the good news. Mr. Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary
disappeared for more than half an hour in a room to fine-tune the language of the joint statement, U.S. and EU officials said.
“Suddenly Trump came out into our group and asked, ‘So, where are we now? Where is the statement?’ ” the EU official said. “We said, ‘We haven’t seen it yet, because your people are still negotiating among themselves.’ ”
U.S. officials were ironing out some disagreements about the wording of the statement, a person familiar with the discussions said. White House aides occasionally urged them to speed things so the two presidents could make a televised statement.
Outside the Cabinet Room, where the meetings took place, the push to stage the unplanned announcement was under way. White House officials and Marines in dress uniform worked quickly to set up podiums and display the U.S. and EU flags at the edge of the Rose Garden. Journalists were called to the event with little warning or information and stood in the garden for close to an hour, waiting for any sign of the U.S. and EU officials.
All the while, the lawmakers who had been scheduled to meet the president that afternoon to discuss his proposed aid to farmers, were escorted out to the Rose Garden so they too could watch the announcement.
The main elements of the agreement that emerged had been floated by the Europeans, prodded by Germany, two months earlier in the hope that Mr. Trump would refrain from imposing tariffs on European steel and aluminum. Mr. Juncker said after the meeting that the agreement was significant because “we were never in a position to agree on these main elements before.”
Mr. Juncker said he trusts Mr. Trump to stick to the elements of the agreement. “We have a good personal relation,” he said.
Last week, Mr. Trump called the EU America’s “foe” and vowed “tremendous retribution” if his meeting with the EU officials didn’t lead to what he considers to be a fair auto-trade deal.
But his remarks in the Rose Garden struck a conciliatory tone. He mentioned nothing about deficits, trade imbalances or auto tariffs. Often focused on putting America first, he called for making “trade fairer and more reciprocal.”
After the announcement with Mr. Juncker, the president arrived victorious to a closed-door meeting with Republican lawmakers, said
Rep. Mike Conaway
of Texas, who attended. Lawmakers shared specific concerns with the president and said they were worried about farmers back home. Specifically, lawmakers talked about soybeans and cherries being held up at ports in China.
“He seemed legitimately concerned,” said Mr. Conaway, chair of the House agriculture committee. “He will keep negotiating.”
In comments Thursday, Mr. Trump said he wanted to “personally thank” Mr. Juncker for his work on the agreement. “He’s a very tough, very smart, very good man. Of course, If I didn’t make a deal with him, I wouldn’t be saying that,” Mr. Trump joked.
—Natalie Andrews contributed to this article.
Write to Valentina Pop at email@example.com
Appeared in the July 27, 2018, print edition as ‘How Juncker Sold Trump on Trade Deal.’