Donald Trump’s top aides are urging him to back Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, but the president isn’t interested, multiple people familiar with the administration’s internal debates say.
In recent days, national security adviser John Bolton, China hands at both the National Security Council and the State Department, and several economic advisers have pushed for a more assertive posture on the Hong Kong demonstrations, which have paralyzed the former British colony and roiled markets.
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They are finding little traction with a president focused more narrowly on trade negotiations with Xi Jinping — and worried that criticizing the Chinese leader’s efforts to stamp out dissent in Hong Kong will scuttle the possibility of inking a deal this winter.
As the protests have intensified over the past month, the president has remained determined to keep China’s human rights abuses from complicating his trade negotiations, going so far as to make a unilateral concession to Xi in the run-up to the G-20 Summit in June, according to three people briefed on the conversation. Aspects of the conversation were first reported by the Financial Times.
When the two spoke by phone ahead of the international gathering, Trump surprised his aides when he told Xi that he would not condemn the Chinese government over a crackdown in Hong Kong. He understood it was an internal issue in which the U.S. would not interfere, he said.
The president’s off-the-cuff commitment caused confusion within the administration. For one, aides were uncertain whether there was a time horizon on the president’s vow of silence, particularly when he went on to make a statement at least mildly supportive of the protesters.
“Well, what they’re looking for is democracy, and I think most people want democracy. Unfortunately, some governments don’t want democracy,” Trump told reporters last month.
The mixed signals from Trump have led to muted and contradictory statements from elsewhere in the administration — as officials try to avoid breaching the commitment the president made to Xi.
Asked for comment, a senior administration official said only that “freedoms of expression and assembly are core values that we share with the people of Hong Kong and these freedoms should be protected. The United States firmly rejects the notion that we are sponsoring or inciting the demonstrations.”
Former officials in both parties have been critical of the administration’s approach to China, though there is broad agreement that the U.S. needs to be tougher on Beijing.
“What I see is kind of a basic arithmetic: a lack of coherence within the administration, plus a lack of real understanding about how China works, equals no good results,” said Daniel Russel, who served as a senior national security aide to President Barack Obama.
On Tuesday, Trump appeared to revert back to his June commitment, repeatedly mentioning the latest protests in Hong Kong without condemning the Chinese government — even as demonstrators have shut down the city’s bustling airport amid escalating threats from the government in Beijing.
“Many are blaming me, and the United States, for the problems going on in Hong Kong. I can’t imagine why?” Trump tweeted. “Our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong,” he added minutes later. “Everyone should be calm and safe!”’
The dissonance between the White House and other arms of the administration has persisted. Trump’s comments were notably less assertive than those of the State Department, which pushed back publicly on Beijing after government officials revealed personal details about a U.S. diplomat who met with activists from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
“Official Chinese media reports on our diplomat in Hong Kong have gone from irresponsible to dangerous,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus tweeted. “This must stop. Chinese authorities know full well, our accredited consular personnel are just doing their jobs, just like diplomats from every other country.”
A senior State Department official said Wednesday that — contrary to the president’s desire to keep trade and human rights on separate tracks — the actions of Chinese leaders demonstrate they do not live up to their commitments.
“They don’t stick to their word and they break their promises,” this official said.
But the president’s views were better articulated by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Wednesday morning that the U.S. had no role to play in the dispute between China and Hong Kong, calling it an “internal matter.”
“The president, instead of having flashing red lights, is giving a green light in effect, and that is not sustainable in U.S. politics,” said Mike Green, who served as a senior National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration.
The president on Tuesday also announced that he would delay the imposition of a 10 percent tariff on Chinese imports — initially slated to go into effect Sept. 1 — until mid-December.
The move was not connected to the protests in Hong Kong, White House officials said. Rather, it came in the wake of a meeting of the president’s trade team last week at which his advisers told him the tariff announcement had caused an uproar from retailers, who protested that imposing the tax in September would crush holiday sales, according to a senior administration official.
The president directed his trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, to devise a solution. Lighthizer and his team proposed delaying the tariffs until Dec. 15, this person said.
Though the president extracted no concession from Xi in June when he promised to stay mum on Hong Kong, several White House officials presumed that he hoped to induce the Chinese leader to move in his direction on trade. (Thus far, it is only Trump who has made concessions by delaying the imposition of proposed tariffs.)
Green, the former Bush administration official, likened the strategy to the one the president has tried to apply to the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, promising on a whim to cancel joint military exercises with South Korea in an attempt to ingratiate himself with his counterpart.
The president is “certainly more interested in the economic side” of the U.S.-China relationship, a Trump administration official acknowledged. “He prioritizes the trade talks over — that’s his No. 1 priority, and I don’t think he’s shy about that. If he has a sense that this is going to be disruptive — and it is something the Chinese will have a strong opinion about — he’s gonna make a determination based on where it fits in, relative to his trade deal.”
But it’s not clear whether the concession will yield the results the president is seeking.
“If the president continues to be relatively hands-off in his commentary, then that will definitely buy him some goodwill with Xi Jinping and the leadership in China,” said a person familiar with the U.S.-Chinese relationship who speaks regularly with officials in both countries. “On the other hand, if the Chinese make the mistake of sending in troops, then I think the president has a very tough time not, at least verbally, taking a tough stand.”
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.