In fact, the Chinese were well aware of the divisions in the administration’s trade team — and set out to exploit them, according to people briefed on the deliberations. They recognized that Mr. Trump’s advisers were split between implacable critics of China, like Mr. Lighthizer and Peter Navarro, the director of the White House national trade council; and free-traders who were more sympathetic, like Mr. Kudlow, Mr. Ross and Mr. Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs executive.

The divisions within the American team revolve around whether the United States should try to secure a short-term deal with China that would benefit some industries and avert a potential trade war, a path that Mr. Mnuchin prefers, or whether they should pressure China to make more fundamental changes to its economy, a path that Mr. Navarro and Mr. Lighthizer say is preferable…

For months, the Chinese cultivated Mr. Mnuchin as part of a concerted effort to establish him as the primary American interlocutor. And to the dismay of some of his colleagues, he embraced that role — most visibly when Mr. Trump sent his own trade delegation to Beijing early this month.