The trade agreement President Donald Trump signed with China less than four months ago has gone from a cornerstone of his re-election bid to a potential political liability as the pandemic sours the relationship between the world’s two biggest economies.

The phase-one pact, which took effect in mid-February, is falling short on a number of fronts, including Beijing’s promises of large agriculture and energy purchases. But the Trump administration so far has been hesitant to ramp up the pressure or back away from the deal altogether, even as the rhetoric on both sides heats up.

In a Fox News interview on Sunday night, Trump raised concerns of a resumption of economic hostilities with China, calling tariffs “the ultimate punishment” for its response to the pandemic and threatening to withdraw from the trade deal if Beijing’s purchase pledges come up short.

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As the U.S. economy craters, the death toll from Covid-19 nears 68,000 and some 30 million Americans join the ranks of the unemployed, Trump now finds himself boxed in. Respond too forcefully amid a growing public outcry to punish China -- with his favorite economic weapon of tariffs -- and he risks hurting consumers and businesses already facing the deepest recession since the 1930s.

“The trade war was launched in good economic times, when additional tariffs could be absorbed,” said Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Reimposing or expanding tariffs right now, in the midst of a global pandemic and U.S. unemployment at over 20%, would be far harder to justify economically or defend politically.”

Biden Ad

Campaign advisers to former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, are trying to exploit what they see as a glaring weakness in Trump’s approach.

“China at the moment has all the leverage,” said Jake Sullivan, a former Biden national security aide who advises his campaign.

In a recent TV ad, the Biden campaign said “Trump rolled over for the Chinese” because “he took their word for it” when President Xi Jinping told him earlier this year that the virus was contained. Biden advisers argue that the economic and health catastrophe could have been averted or contained if the president had been tougher on China earlier this year instead of praising the trade deal.

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