President Donald Trump would not say Friday whether he plans to sign legislation enacting tough sanctions on China for its crackdown in Hong Kong, cementing the impression Trump ranks the economic relationship with Beijing higher than human rights.
His noncommittal answer during a largely friendly interview prompted confusion and angst on Capitol Hill, where the measure passed this week with overwhelming bipartisan majorities.
And it furthered a pattern of Trump prioritizing fragile trade talks with China’s President Xi Jinping over a forceful denunciation of his counterpart’s battle with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
“We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi,” Trump said during a phone call to the Fox News morning program. “He’s a friend of mine. I’d like to see them work it out, OK?”
Trump has spent months walking tenderly around the Hong Kong issue, raising it periodically but failing to voice a strong condemnation of China’s tactics in the semiautonomous territory. In June, he told Xi in a telephone call he would remain quiet on the issue as trade talks progressed, according to senior administration officials and others familiar with the call.
This week, Congress moved to force his hand, passing the bill that would require an annual review of the city’s autonomy from the Chinese mainland government and allow sanctions on officials found to be responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong. Another bill would block American exports of non-lethal crowd control products to the Hong Kong police force.
The White House refused to say whether Trump would sign the measure, even as some of his Republican allies in Congress – including Sen. Marco Rubio, the measure’s sponsor – insisted he would approve it.
The caution from Trump’s aides appeared warranted. He said in the interview he needed to balance the ongoing trade talks with demands from lawmakers he take a harder line on Beijing.
“I stand with Hong Kong, I stand with freedom, I stand with all of the things that I want to do, but we are also in the process of making the largest trade deals in history,” he said, claiming later that Hong Kong “would have been obliterated” if it weren’t for him, calling ongoing protests a “complicating factor” in a trade deal with China.
Still, Trump said he’d warned Xi that a violent crackdown in Hong Kong would “be making a big mistake,” which, he said, would have a “tremendous negative impact” on a trade deal.
Other administration officials have projected a stronger stance on China, including Vice President Mike Pence, who delivered a closely watched speech in October that harshly criticized Beijing for its crackdown.
Pence also denounced American companies – including the National Basketball Association and Nike – for not taking a harder line against China when their business interests were threatened.
Pence accused the NBA of being a “wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime” for apologizing when a team manager tweeted support for the Hong Kong protesters.
Trump’s tweets came as US and Chinese negotiators work to finalize a partial trade deal that Trump first announced in October. The talks stalled after China backed off certain commitments on agricultural purchases and insisted upon tariff relief, though both sides say they will continue negotiations.
Trump said in the Fox interview that a deal was near.
“We have a deal potentially, very close. He wants to make it much more than I want to make it I’m not anxious to make it,” he said.