Perhaps Donald Trump, given his vast wealth, has bought himself a time machine. If not, his vow to punish China for currency manipulation makes little sense. If the president-elect has been traveling back to 2005 or 2008 or 2012, maybe he really believes the manipulation charge. China artificially held down the yuan’s value for at least a decade, making its goods cheaper for American consumers and raising the price of US exports . Since 2014, however, the yuan has been fairly valued or overvalued against the dollar. When China has intervened in the last two years, it has been to keep its currency from falling too fast. Those recent actions actually benefit US exporters, but Trump doesn’t let facts get in the way of a good political screed. “On the first day of my term of office,” he pledges, “I will direct the secretary of the Treasury to label China a currency manipulator.” Such a designation is mostly symbolic. A 1988 law empowers the Treasury to begin negotiations aimed at ending the manipulation but doesn’t authorize any specific retaliation. Fred Bergsten, director emeritus at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, urged presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to invoke the currency-manipulation law, but he sees no evidence to support such a designation now. “He could do it,” Bergsten said of Trump, “even though it would be ludicrous factually.” How would China answer such a charge? “I think they would respond with a mix of humor and outrage,” Bergsten says. “If Trump used it as an excuse to put in import controls, they would say there is no basis for that in either domestic or international law.” Trump could rely on other US laws to impose sanctions, such as his proposed 35 percent tariff on Chinese goods. If he did, China would certainly retaliate. Imagine canceled Boeing airplane orders, bans on US agricultural products and much more. The World Trade Organization would ultimately rule on the legality of such actions. To the extent the US was pushing a, pardon the expression, trumped-up currency charge, we’d probably lose. Maybe, though, we shouldn’t take Trump so literally. “People have to adjust to a president who just talks differently,” says Robert Zafft, an attorney at Greensfelder Hemker & Gale in St. Louis. “He prides himself on making deals. If he’s going to throw out a first offer, it’s not going to be a good one, but it is going to bring someone to the table.” Zafft, who has advised the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and other international organizations, thinks of Trump as a junk-ball pitcher. In baseball, that’s a guy who gets batters out with curveballs and off-speed pitches, not straight-ahead fastballs. So the currency issue is a change-up of sorts. “He’s basically saying to China, business as usual is over,” Zafft says. “To some degree, the manipulation thing is an umbrella for a lot of beefs that we might have with China.” The real beefs are about things such as intellectual property theft, cybersecurity and subsidized state-owned companies. “It may be that the Chinese can refute the currency manipulation charge successfully but will have to come to the table to do so, and then they’ll have to discuss all the other issues,” Zafft speculates. If that’s how Trump’s dealmaking works, the world will get used to it. Still, when we have so many legitimate gripes with the Chinese, it seems odd to risk angering them over one that’s at least two years out of date.