The previous trade deficit recrod, of $838.3 billion, was in 2006, under President George W. Bush, as the housing bubble peaked.
Still, tariffs so far have proven to be a blunt weapon.
That was offset by the gains from protectionism derived by USA producers benefiting from the tariffs, the economists found.
But America's appetite for imports appears to have increased after the tariffs that Trump imposed a year ago on foreign steel, aluminum and Chinese products.
Lawrence Summers, a Harvard economist and former chairman of President Barack Obama's National Economic Council, told The Times that "the trade deficit is a bad metric for judging economic policy".
On its face, the mechanism looks similar to previous negotiating efforts the United States and China used to discuss trade issues - and that the Trump administration said it would abandon because they haven't been successful in getting Beijing to make the required changes to its trade policies.
The US trade gap with the rest of the world jumped to a 10-year high of $621bn ($NZ916bn) last year, dealing a blow to President Donald Trump's deficit reduction plan. Data from December 2018 was released Wednesday.
Cars: China is "speeding up the timetable for removing foreign-ownership limitations on car ventures and reducing tariffs on imported vehicles to below the current auto tariff of 15%".
Robert Scott, senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, said Trump's failure to tackle what he sees as a global misalignment in currencies that requires a depreciation of the dollar has been the main cause of a rising trade deficit.
Going forward. For days, there have been reports of progress in the trade talks between the US and China and while negotiators will take notice of the deficit number, it's not clear exactly whose hand it strengthens in the ongoing talks.
The trade tariff war that has been hitting the global economy is showing signs of coming to an end through the bilateral trade agreement between the two countries.
Each country can inflict economic pain on the other, but the latest deficit numbers underscore that the potential magnitude of that pain is greater for the export-dependent Chinese economy.
A second study by four economists from the University of California, Los Angeles; Yale University, the University of California, Berkeley; and Columbia University reached the same conclusion.
President Trump put off a planned round of tariff increases to start the month. They also were causing the diversion of $165 billion a year in trade leading to significant costs for companies having to reorganize supply chains.