White House officials push back on the idea that trade deal with China is imminent

For a brief moment Friday, there was optimism in the market that the Trump administration was getting closer to a trade deal with China. But administration officials are telling CNBC that there is no indication of an imminent agreement.

On Friday, a report that said President Donald Trump had asked U.S. officials to prepare a draft trade agreement with China sent the market higher. Then, after it became clear that the reported progress might not materialize, the Dow went negative.

Three senior administration officials told CNBC on Friday that there is no indication of an imminent trade deal, despite some progress being made behind the scenes. Later Friday, Trump’s top economic advisor Larry Kudlow told CNBC’s “Halftime Report” that Trump had not asked his Cabinet to put together a draft trade deal.

Another senior official said that the president is preparing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the upcoming G-20 summit in Argentina – and that includes discussing the potential terms of a deal. But that official cautioned against reading too much into the preparations, noting that there is a standing weekly interagency meeting on trade at the White House to discuss specific policies.

Some investors have stressed the need for caution, noting that the administration’s boasts of trade progress are coming just days before the midterm elections. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

“I think it’s maybe temporary, because Tuesday is Election Day,” said Richard Bernstein, CEO of Richard Bernstein Advisors, Friday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “We will see what happens Wednesday.”

For his part, the president has made a rhetorical turnaround regarding the trade talks. A week ago, Trump told a crowd at the White House that he had a message for Xi.

“They want to make a deal so badly. And I said, ‘You’re not ready yet. No, you’re not ready. No.'” Trump said he told Xi. “I told him, ‘You’re not ready.'” China has blamed the U.S. for escalating trade tensions,

But just a few days before Election Day, the president changed his tune — and it seemed to buoy the stock market right on schedule.

Just a day after Kudlow said that the administration has not engaged the Chinese in “intense talks lately,” Trump said Thursday that trade discussions “are moving along nicely.”

Investors hopeful for a trade deal are skeptical about the recent change in rhetoric, suggesting it could be heavy on politics and short on policy.

“In my opinion, will all due respect to the president, he’s talking up the stock market before the midterm elections,” said Howard Ward, chief investment officer of Gamco Investors.

“There have been no discussions taking place between China and the U.S.,” Ward said. “There will be no deal next month.”

For months, administration officials have said that talks with China were stalling. The president has maintained the country is not ready to come to the table. Just over two weeks ago, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC that talks were on “hiatus.”

Ross also cast doubt on the idea that a deal could be advanced during talks at the G-20 summit this month.

“You can’t do a multi-thousand-page trade agreement in an hour,” he said at the time.

This week is not the first time that the market has risen on reports that the U.S. and China were nearing a deal. A similar situation played out over the summer. Ultimately, those talks came to nothing — with an official telling CNBC that there had been “zero” engagement between the two countries.

The off-and-on nature of the negotiating process has left a sour taste in the mouth of some investors.

“I challenge the White House to bring us a deal which we will then celebrate,” Ward said. “It’s not going to happen.”

The trade gambit comes as Trump has floated a number of other last-minute policy proposals that experts say are unlikely to come to pass, at least on the timeline the president has offered.

Trump said last month that his administration was working on a “resolution” that would cut taxes on the middle class by the midterm elections, despite lawmakers having left Washington. That resolution has yet to materialize.

He has also pledged to sign an executive order doing away with birthright citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants, which experts say would amount to a broad reinterpreting of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution — something that is outside of the president’s executive authority. Trump has said the issue will be resolved by the Supreme Court.

WATCH:This trade deal may be what Trump needs to take on China

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