Trump Hails ‘Special’ Ties With Modi, but Complains of Tariffs

NEW DELHI — President Trump said on Tuesday that he and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India had made progress toward what he hopes will be a landmark trade agreement between the two economic giants. But there was no breakthrough to announce after formal talks on the second and final day of the president’s visit, as Mr. Trump complained about steep Indian tariffs.

A joint public appearance by the two leaders was long on florid language about the strength of their relationship and short on concrete results. While Mr. Trump had said before departing the United States that “we may make a tremendous deal there,” the two sides appeared far apart on major points of a trade pact.

“Our teams have made tremendous progress on a comprehensive trade agreement, and I’m optimistic we can reach a deal that will be of great importance to both countries,” Mr. Trump told reporters, without elaborating.

Speaking at a news conference a few hours later, he diverged from the sunny rhetoric that had characterized his appearances with Mr. Modi over the past two days, saying that India maintained unfairly high tariffs on American goods, including Harley Davidson motorcycles.

“We’re being charged large amounts of tariffs, and they can’t do that,” Mr. Trump said. “I want reciprocal. The United States has to be treated fairly.”

Such complaints were absent earlier in the day when the two leaders appeared before reporters in the lush garden of Hyderabad House, the iconic building typically used to host foreign leaders, and spoke in front of a backdrop of flags, flowers and fountains.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi celebrated a series of modest agreements that were set before the visit, including a $3 billion arms purchase and a letter of cooperation between Exxon Mobil and India’s energy sector. They agreed to create a joint counternarcotics working group to reduce opioid abuse.

“We think we’re at a point where our relationship is so special with India, it has never been as good as it is now,” Mr. Trump said. “We feel very strongly about each other, and we have done something that is very unique.”

As the two leaders spoke to journalists, smoke was rising into the sky in a different part of New Delhi, where Hindu and Muslim mobs were battling each other in another day of violence over a new citizenship law, backed by Mr. Modi, which eases the way for migrants of all South Asian faiths other than Islam. The day before, at least seven people were killed in the fighting in the Maujpur district of Delhi, including a police officer.

The clashes are the latest example of sectarian tensions that have swelled in recent years as Mr. Modi pursues policies that his critics say are aimed at turning India’s secular democracy into a Hindu state, in which its 200 million Muslims are consigned to second-class status.

All of that went unmentioned as the two leaders made a show of Indian-American relations alongside each other. But when a reporter asked Mr. Trump later, at his solo news conference, about the citizenship law and resulting violence, the president glossed over the issue in rosy terms.

“We did talk about religious freedom, and I will say that the prime minister — it was incredible what he told me,” Mr. Trump said. “He wants people to have religious freedom, and very strongly.”

“They have really worked hard on religious freedom,” Mr. Trump said. “We talked about it for a long time, and I really believe that’s what he wants.”

The two leaders took no questions at their joint appearance before the news media. Although Mr. Modi has taken questions from reporters while overseas next to other world leaders, he is the first prime minister in recent memory to not have held any news conferences in India.

Mr. Modi treated Mr. Trump to a rally of 125,000 people at a giant cricket stadium in Ahmedabad on Monday, an event meant to appeal to the American president’s love of crowds and spectacle, and welcomed him to the presidential palace on Tuesday with the roar of guns and an honor guard of red-uniformed soldiers on horseback.

At his news conference, Mr. Trump was basking in the glow of that event. “Nobody else that came here got the kind of reception that I got,” Mr. Trump said in response to a question about American limits on H-1B visas for Indians.

“Someone said it was greatest greeting ever given to any head of state of any country,” Mr. Trump added, even though it was not even the largest crowd ever to welcome an American president to India.

He did gently urge Mr. Modi’s government to respect freedom on the internet, which the Indian government has shut down repeatedly. Talking about the need for secure 5G wireless, the president added that it should be “a tool for freedom, progress, prosperity, not to do anything where it could be even conceived as a conduit for suppression and censorship.”

A trade deal with India has been a priority for two years for Mr. Trump, who would like to have another economic agreement to take onto the campaign trail before the November election. But the two sides have been divided over farm products, medical devices, digital trade and new tariffs. Mr. Trump has complained that India treats the United States unfairly and called Mr. Modi a “tough negotiator.”

In his news conference, Mr. Trump also addressed growing alarm over the coronavirus and the return of 14 Americans infected with coronavirus to the country last week. He defended that action, even though he was privately furious about it.

“I felt we should bring them back,” he said. “They’re Americans — we should bring them back.”

During the 2014 ebola epidemic in Africa, Mr. Trump tweeted in outrage that Americans infected with that virus should not be allowed into the country. Asked whether his current view clashed with his prior one, he rejected the comparison.

“There’s a vast difference” between the two epidemics, Mr. Trump said, nothing that Ebola was nearly always fatal while the death rate among those infected with the new coronavirus has been relatively low. “At that time nobody had ever even heard of Ebola or had conceived of something where people would disintegrate.” (Ebola was widely known by 2014.)

Mr. Trump also vowed not to accept foreign assistance during his re-election campaign and rejected American intelligence assessments that Russia was already working to help him.

“I want no help from any country, and I haven’t been given help from any country,” he said.

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