Trump’s trade talks with China are back on—but it’s not clear who will lead them

In October, he accused China of “stealing our technology” and stressed the need for the U.S. to “protect our innovation” and keep an “edge.” Earlier Monday, Navarro told NPR that Lighthizer is “the toughest negotiator we’ve ever had at the USTR.”

“And he’s gonna go chapter and verse and get tariffs down, non-tariff barriers down, and end all these structural practices that prevent market access,” the trade advisor said.

Lighthizer “will be laser-like focused on getting concrete actions from the Chinese” and getting Beijing to address “the real structural concerns” the U.S. has decried, Meredith Sumpter, Eurasia Group head of research strategy and operations, told CNBC’s “Power Lunch.”

The USTR directed CNBC to the White House when asked to comment on whether Lighthizer and Mnuchin saw differences in how to treat China talks. The White House did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

Lighthizer has certainly shown himself to be more harsh on China than some of his counterparts. But the views of Trump’s individual advisors may not ultimately drive his thinking, said David Dollar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked as a Treasury Department policy emissary to China during the Obama administration.

Instead, Trump may gravitate toward certain advisors based on what he sees as politically and economically best at any given moment. When he views being “tough” on China as the best course, he could warm to the “hawks” such as Lighthizer and Navarro, Dollar said. If having a deal to promote seems like a better option, Trump could turn to the more conciliatory advisors such as Mnuchin and Kudlow.

As Trump’s Republican Party lost about 40 U.S. House seats in last month’s midterms and the president himself faces re-election in 2020, “logic dictates” that Trump could be more willing to compromise, Dollar added.

— CNBC’s Michelle Fox contributed to this report

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