America’s lead trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, had an awkward encounter with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Friday as he tried to calmly school him on legal terminology in front of reporters and a chuckling representative from China.
Lighthizer finally stopped trying, and instead deftly switched the term for the same document when he realized he wasn’t making any headway with the president.
It started when Trump was asked by a reporter how long “memorandums of understanding” being negotiated with China over trade disputes would last.
Trump shot back: “I don’t like MOUs because they don’t mean anything.”
Lighthizer calmly corrected the president, and turned to explain to reporters: “An MOU is a contract. It’s the way trade agreements are generally [established]. It’s an actual contract between the two parties. A memo of understanding is a binding agreement.”
He added: “It’s detailed, it covers everything. … It’s a legal term; it’s a contract.”
“I disagree,” said a scowling Trump, causing top Chinese negotiator Vice Premier Liu He to laugh. “A memorandum of understanding is exactly that: It’s a memorandum of what our understanding is,” he said, circling his hands in the air. “How long will that take to put into a … contract?”
In a flash, Lighthizer switched gears without breaking a sweat: “From now on we’re not using ‘memorandum of understanding’ anymore (sparking laughter from causing several people in the room). We’re going to use the term ‘trade agreement.’ We’ll have the same document; it’s going to be called a trade agreement. We’re never going to have an MOU again.”
“Good,” said Trump.