No more MOUs! Lighthizer tweaks trade terminology after dispute with Trump

In trade talks between the United States and China, Memorandums of Understanding - the building blocks of what would be a historic deal - are officially out.

President Donald Trump, in an extraordinary dispute with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on Friday, dismissed the MOUs that have formed the outline of a potential trade pact as a waste of time, despite protests from his chief negotiator.

Sitting in the Oval Office across from Lighthizer and his Chinese counterpart in the trade talks, Vice Premier Liu He, Trump unloaded about his feelings on MOUs, which Reuters reported on Wednesday had been drawn up in six critical areas to form the outline of a broad deal.

"I don't like MOUs because they don't mean anything. To me they don't mean anything. I think you're better off just going into a document. I was never ... a fan of an MOU," Trump said from his perch behind his desk.

Lighthizer, who was sitting with other members of Trump's negotiating team including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, economic adviser Larry Kudlow, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, explained that writing MOUs was a standard procedure in forming trade agreements.

"An MOU is a contract. It's the way trade agreements are generally used ... A Memorandum of Understanding is a binding agreement between two people," Lighthizer said. "It's a legal term, it's a contract," he said.

Trump was not satisfied. "By the way, I disagree," he countered, addressing reporters as well as the Chinese delegation that has been negotiating the MOUs with the U.S. team. "I think that a Memorandum of Understanding is not a contract to the extent that we want. ... We're doing a Memorandum of Understanding that will be put into a final contract, I assume. But to me the final contract is really the thing, Bob, and I think you mean that too."

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President Donald Trump speaks during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall along the southern border, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump turns back to the audience after speaking during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall along the southern border. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, speaks during an enrollment ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Feb. 14, 2019. Congress sent President Donald Trump legislation he said he'll sign to avoid another government shutdown, as a new dispute looms over his decision to declare a national emergency to get a total of $8 billion in federal money for his border wall, according to an official. Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Border Patrol unit drives near a section of reinforced US-Mexico border fence seen from Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on February 14, 2019. - US President Donald Trump will sign a spending bill to avert a government shutdown but will also issue an emergency declaration to fund his controversial border wall, the White House and lawmakers said Thursday. (Photo by Guillermo Arias / AFP) (Photo credit should read GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall along the southern border. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Donald Trump speaks during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall along the southern border, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall along the southern border, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall along the southern border, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall along the southern border, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump, left, looks over to Susan Stevens, right, who is holding up a picture of her daughter, during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall along the southern border, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019 in Washington. Stevens lost her daughter to opioids. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Donald Trump speaks during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House Friday, Feb. 15, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Donald Trump speaks about a state of emergency from the Rose Garden of the White House February 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. - President Donald Trump, repeating his claim that 'walls work,' announced that he will declare a national emergency in order to build a barrier on the US-Mexico border without funding from Congress. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 15: CNN's Jim Acosta (R) talks with 'Angel moms,' including Sabine Durden (L), following a news conference with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House February 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. Trump said he would declare a national emergency to free up federal funding to build a wall along the southern border. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Central American migrants observe the Rio Grande (also Rio Bravo), the river along the US-Mexico border that divides the cities of Piedras Negras in Mexico's Coahuila State and Eagle Pass in Texas, US, on February 15, 2019. - President Donald Trump, repeating his claim that 'walls work,' announced Friday that he will declare a national emergency in order to build a barrier on the US-Mexico border without funding from Congress. (Photo by Julio Cesar AGUILAR / AFP) (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, Feb. 14, 2019 -- U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., the United States, on Feb. 14, 2019. U.S. President Donald Trump is prepared to sign a bipartisan bill on spending and border security to avert another government shutdown, but also declare a national emergency to obtain funds for his long-promised border wall, the White House said Thursday. Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, said her party is 'reviewing our options' in responding to the anticipated emergency declaration. (Xinhua/Ting Shen) (Xinhua/Ting Shen via Getty Images)
A Border Patrol unit remains near a section of reinforced US-Mexico border fence seen from Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on February 14, 2019. - US President Donald Trump will sign a spending bill to avert a government shutdown but will also issue an emergency declaration to fund his controversial border wall, the White House and lawmakers said Thursday. (Photo by Guillermo Arias / AFP) (Photo credit should read GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)
A section of the reinforced US-Mexico border fence is seen from Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on February 14, 2019. - US President Donald Trump will sign a spending bill to avert a government shutdown but will also issue an emergency declaration to fund his controversial border wall, the White House and lawmakers said Thursday. (Photo by Guillermo Arias / AFP) (Photo credit should read GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)
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Reuters reported on Wednesday that negotiators have been drawing up six MOUs on structural issues: forced technology transfer and cyber theft, intellectual property rights, services, currency, agriculture, and non-tariff barriers to trade.

Lighthizer, clearly not making traction in the back-and-forth with his boss, decided to go for a change in terminology.

"From now on we're not using the word Memorandum of Understanding anymore. We're going to use the term trade agreement, all right?" he said.

"OK," the Chinese vice premier, sitting next to Lighthizer, responded.

"Assuming you decide on an agreement ... it'll be a trade agreement between the United States and China," Lighthizer told the president.

"Good," Trump said. "I like that much better."

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