"I remember Pearl Harbor," the American president said, referring to the December 7, 1941, Japanese bombing of US forces stationed in Hawaii, which triggered a massive US response against Tokyo in the Pacific Ocean Theater of World War II.
The undiplomatic remark was dropped during Abe's June visit to the White House, and Trump proceeded to blast Japan's economic policies after making the statement, reports suggest. The Washington Post first reported Trump's comments Tuesday.
If he said it, Trump could not have meant the statement literally: the New Yorker was born in 1946, five years after that fateful day.
The US has a trade deficit with Japan, meaning that the value of Japanese goods imported into the American market exceeds the value of US goods exported into the Japanese market. The US maintains a deficit of approximately $69 billion with Japan, according to 2016 data from the US Trade Representative. Japanese officials maintain Trump does not adequately understand the nature of the bilateral trade relationship.
While empathizing with Trump's displeasure regarding the US-Japan trade imbalance, Hiroshige Seko, Japan's minister of economy, warned that "great damage" would be incurred by the global economy if Trump moves forward with additional tariffs targeting Japan's auto industry.
"To lessen the trade deficit even further will be very difficult, and I think people need to understand that. We understand that Trump wants to lessen the trade deficit, but I think it's very important for President Trump and his administration to find out the root cause," the official told Time Magazine August 23. "If the Japanese auto industry is weakened, it will not be able to invest in the US."
Before the June meeting with Abe, Trump claimed that Japan was effectively preventing cars made by US auto manufacturers from entering the Japanese market. Ford Motor Co. gave up on selling vehicles in Japan "because they couldn't get cars in there," Trump told reporters in February.
"We're going to straighten it out. We've already started," Trump claimed at the time.
Abe reportedly has showed an incredible level of patience during meetings with Trump, despite the latter's ignorance of certain economic data and failure to heed Tokyo's advice on North Korea, according to the Washington Post.
Trump's antagonistic position on trade relations with Japan does not seem to have budged over the years.
During a 1987 interview with talk show host Oprah Winfrey, Trump delivered the following monologue: "We're a debtor nation. Something's going to happen over the next number of years with this country, because you can't keep going on losing $200 billion. And yet, we let Japan come in and dump everything into our markets. It's not free trade. If you ever try to go to Japan right now and sell something, forget about it, Oprah, just forget about it. It's almost impossible. They don't have laws against it, they just make it impossible."