WASHINGTON – Rather than speak up strongly for the Hong Kong protesters, President Donald Trump on Thursday suggested the answer to their complaints of Chinese oppression is simply for Beijing’s “great leader,” Xi Jinping, to meet with them and peacefully sort out the unrest that has been decades in the making.
Trump’s comments were a far cry from the tougher stances taken by some fellow Republicans — and his predecessors in office — to stand with pro-democracy protesters during moments of unrest. His words are emblematic of a foreign policy approach that focuses narrowly on a trade deal with China, putting it above promoting American values.
Trump has fixated on the state of trade negotiations and at times has ignored the counsel of some of his most senior advisers to lower the temperature of the trade dispute with Beijing. Amid stock market volatility this week and talk of a looming recession, worries have grown within the West Wing that escalating trade tensions and tariffs could undermine Trump’s best argument for reelection — a strong U.S. economy.
In June, Trump indicated to Chinese President Xi on the sidelines of an international summit in Japan that he would not overtly criticize the Chinese government’s efforts to silence the protests in Hong Kong, according to two administration officials not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions. As the demonstrations ratcheted up this week, Trump stayed mostly quiet, referring to the moment as “the Hong Kong thing.”
As he has in the past, Trump retreated to the role of observer to an international crisis, chiming in on Twitter with reactions to what he saw on cable TV but not injecting the United States into the moment.
National Security Adviser John Bolton and economic and diplomatic aides have urged the White House to back the protesters.
The State Department on Wednesday expressed deep concern about reports of Chinese paramilitary movement near the Hong Kong border and offered a measure of support for the protests, saying they “reflect the sentiment of Hongkongers and their broad and legitimate concerns about the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
The top Democrat and Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee jointly placed the blame squarely on Beijing and recalled the violent crackdown on Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989.
“We are concerned that China would consider again brutally putting down peaceful protests,” said the statement Wednesday by Reps. Eliot Engel of New York, the committee chairman, and Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican. “We urge China to avoid making such a mistake, which would be met with universal condemnation and swift consequences.”
Other Republicans have spoken out, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, hitting the notes usually associated with a president:
“To the thousands of young people in Hong Kong who are speaking UP for human rights and speaking OUT against the Communist Party of China: we see you waving the American flag, and we hear you singing our national anthem,” McCarthy tweeted this week. “America stands for freedom. America stands with Hong Kong.”
Trump took a more active role Thursday — but in an appeal to Xi, whom he has repeatedly flattered and was careful not to criticize. In a tweet, he urged Xi to meet with the protesters to deliver “a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem.”
Meanwhile, the United States and China appear no closer to a trade deal. Despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, the pain of the tariffs is being felt by American consumers and businesses, and forcing companies, when possible, to reconfigure their global supply chains.
And the talk of recession, perhaps arriving just months before Americans decide if Trump will get a second term, is worrying his advisers. They’re concerned that a slowing economy could cause the campaign to shed voters who were willing to give him a pass on some his incendiary policies and rhetoric because the economy has been doing well.
Trump, in an interview Thursday with a New Hampshire radio station ahead of a rally in the state, blamed, as usual, any economic sluggishness on his predecessors and on the Federal Reserve for keeping interest rates too high. But he also defended his approach to handling China and dismissed the recent stock market tumble.
“We had a couple of bad days, but we’re going to have some very good days ’cause we had to take on China,” the president said. “It should have been done by Obama and Bush and everybody else. It should have been done long before I came along. But I’m the one that gets stuck with it and I’m the one that’s going to do it.”
“China, frankly, would love to make a deal,” he continued. “And it’s got to be a deal on proper terms. It’s got to be a deal, frankly, on our terms.”
Trump’s quiet approach on Hong Kong should not be a surprise. He has repeatedly deprioritized human rights in American diplomacy, from talks with North Korea and Saudi Arabia to China. And he has publicly refused to weigh in on the heavy-handed actions of other nations as he espouses a foreign policy more focused on a narrow view of sovereignty and national interest.
The president has repeatedly praised strongmen like leaders in Russia and Turkey for their control over their people and has turned authoritarian tendencies into a punch line.