In a June 18 call with Xi Jinping, Donald Trump promised to remain quiet on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in order to ensure that trade talks between the US and China stayed on track.
That’s according to a pair of sources familiar with the call who spoke to CNN. The news comes on a day when the US president shocked political rivals and allies alike by openly calling for Xi to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
“It’s certainly something we can start thinking about because I’m sure that President Xi does not like being under that kind of scrutiny where billions of dollars is taken out of his country by a guy that just got kicked out of the Navy”, Trump said, in what sounded like a veiled threat to Xi, Biden or, more likely, both.
The president claimed to have never raised the issue with Beijing previously. We immediately suggested that Democratic lawmakers would likely be interested to review communications related to the trade discussions, to find out if the White House had tried to link Biden or anything else to the tariff negotiations.
According to CNN’s sources, “Trump raised Biden’s political prospects as well as those of Sen. Elizabeth Warren” in the June call with Xi, who was told, specifically, that the administration “would remain quiet on Hong Kong protests as trade talks progressed”.
The call was transferred to the same code-word only database used to warehouse the account of the Ukraine call during which Trump pressed Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden, according to sources.
Trump’s remarks about China investigating the former vice president sowed confusion. “Are you asking about the comments that Trump just made? I don’t think I can tell you anything in this regard right now”, one Chinese diplomat told CNN, adding that “This is quite chaotic [and] we do not want to get in the middle of the US politics”.
But it sounds as though it’s at least possible that Trump sought to drag Beijing into US politics during conversations with Xi. The revelation that Trump promised not to weigh in on the protests in Hong Kong explains why the US president has been coy when questioned. This news will doubtlessly be condemned by pro-democracy advocates and lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have been unequivocal in their support for the demonstrators.
Trump can say what he wants about me, but it's outrageous that any president would sell out the people of Hong Kong behind closed doors.
The public must see the transcript of Trump's call with Xi. And we need a leader who will stand up for our values.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 3, 2019
Apparently, Chinese government officials on Thursday sent one Trump ally outside the White House a message asking if the president was serious about an investigation into Biden. “The response: investigating corruption is an easy way to earn goodwill with Trump”, CNN writes.
Last month, protesters in the city waved American flags and implored Trump to “liberate” them. As we wrote at the time, Trump is walking a fine line between the temptation to use the drama as leverage in the trade talks and his own palpable disdain for dissent and affinity for autocratic rule. Apparently, he managed to have his cake and eat it too by trading a promise to stay quiet for progress on trade, in the process satisfying both his and Xi’s inherent desire to avoid emboldening domestic dissent.
The White House’s standard line has been that Beijing should “exercise restraint” and handle the protesters “humanely”, something which becomes less and less likely with each passing weekend.
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which protesters are championing, would entail the US government evaluating political autonomy in Hong Kong at regular intervals, and could also green-light sanctions against officials (either in the city or on the Mainland) found to be involved in abductions or the curtailment of basic human rights.
“The legislation could be brought up for full votes by the end of the year”, the Washington Post wrote Wednesday. “If it were to pass, the White House hasn’t said whether Trump would sign it into law”.