President Trump is planning to ask his staff to consider investigating Chinese trade practices, senior White House officials said Saturday. The Trump administration is insisting the move isn't tied to heightening tensions with North Korea, but it is inherently connected to complications in the region.
"I don't think we're heading toward a period of greater conflict (with China)," said one White House official. "This is simply business."
The executive memo Trump is expected to sign on Monday will direct U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to look into whether his office should open an investigation into China's trade policies and whether they abide by the U.S. Trade Act of 1974.
It's impossible, however, to see the move as somehow disconnected from the back-and-forth rhetoric between the U.S. and North Korea over the past week. Trump has previously expressed frustration that China hasn't done more to economically punish North Korea.
"I am very disappointed in China," he said on July 29 on Twitter. "Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet ... they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk.
"We will no longer allow this to continue."
And then on Thursday, when speaking with reporters, Trump said in relation to North Korea, "if China helps us, I feel a lot differently toward trade."
The title of the so-called "301 investigation" that Trump is expected to call for Lighthizer to consider, refers to Section 301 of the U.S. Trade Act of 1974, which authorizes the president to work to remove or retaliate against a practice by a foreign government that is "unjustifiable and burdens or restricts United States commerce."
In a background briefing with reporters on Saturday, White House officials pointed to frustration from U.S. businesses that they have to share intellectual property with China as a condition for doing business in the country.
"Americans are among the most innovative," said one official. "They should not be forced to turn over the fruits of their labor."
Despite Trump's previous comments, officials at the briefing repeatedly rebuffed any attempt by reporters to connect the possible investigation to the North Korea situation.
It's unclear whether any actual repercussions for China, like sanctions or tariffs, would come from an investigation like this, and officials said there is no timeline for how long an investigation would take.
Both Reuters and CNN reported this week that Trump was planning to call for the investigation to be considered earlier this month but that the president waited until after a United Nations Security Council vote to impose new sanctions on North Korea. The vote passed with unanimous support from all 15 member nations, including Russia and China.
CNN also reported that Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping about the expected executive action in a phone call on Friday. A White House communications staffer declined to confirm or deny the report on Saturday, instead pointing to a statement released by the White House on Friday describing the phone call. That statement didn't mention the executive action, but said the leaders discussed North Korea policy and Trump's visit to China later this year.