BEIJING — President Donald Trump said Thursday that he does not blame China for its economic success at the expense of the United States, what he called a "one sided" trade relationship.
"I don't blame China," he said at a business event joined by Chinese President Xi Jinping. "After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit."
The comments are a remarkable shift in tone by Trump, who campaigned on a hard-line promise to take China to task over its trade practices with the United States only to soften his language toward Beijing as president.
"I think what [Trump is] saying is that China is pursuing its own national interests," U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad told reporters, including NBC News, before Trump and Xi made joint remarks. "You can't blame any country for doing that. We just have to do a better job of doing that for the United States."
Later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump's comments were "a little bit of tongue in cheek" while also having "a little truth" in them.
"Look, we are where we are because previous administrations — whether through benign neglect...or for whatever reasons — allowed this to happen and allowed it to get so out of balance that now it's not an easy thing to rebalance," Tillerson said, giving Trump credit for telling the Chinese that it was necessary to "change the paradigm" on trade.
In a separate bilateral meeting earlier Thursday morning, Trump had blamed the U.S.-China trade imbalance — the Commerce Department reported a $29.9 billion trade deficit with China in September — on past administrations.
"It's too bad that past administrations allowed it to get so far out of kilter," Trump said of the trade relationship. "But we'll make it fair and it'll be tremendous to both of us."
In joint remarks with Xi, Trump stressed the need to re-calibrate the relationship and said an agreement the two presidents signed Thursday morning for two-way commercial investments marked "a very, very good start."
Though Trump celebrated these investments — totaling over $200 billion — Tillerson told reporters in an off-camera briefing Thursday night that Chinese efforts on trade so far have been "in the grand scheme of things...pretty small."
"The Chinese acknowledge much more has to be done," the secretary of state said, adding that Trump's objectives on trade with Beijing have yet to be met.
The leaders exited after making joint remarks without taking questions — a break with precedent of former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who have pressed their Chinese counterparts to allow exchanges with reporters.
As Trump exited, a shouted question from an American reporter — "Do you still believe China is raping the United States, Mister President?" — went unanswered but underscored the yawning gap between the president's language on China as a candidate and as president.