‘Hong Kong Thing’ Is ‘Very Tough,’ but Trump Doesn’t Criticize China
WASHINGTON — President Trump, presenting himself as a neutral observer of the mass protests in Hong Kong, offered lukewarm support on Tuesday for pro-democracy demonstrators there but stopped short of criticizing the government in Beijing.
In comments to reporters and in a series of afternoon tweets, Mr. Trump took no strong position on the demonstrations that have gripped Hong Kong for weeks and have drawn an increasingly brutal response from local security forces. He echoed none of the defenses of freedom and democracy coming from both Democrats and Republicans.
“The Hong Kong thing is a very tough situation. Very tough,” Mr. Trump told reporters as he left New Jersey for an official event in Pennsylvania. “We’ll see what happens. But I’m sure it’ll work out.” He added: “I hope it works out for everybody, including China. I hope it works out peacefully. I hope nobody gets hurt. I hope nobody gets killed.”
The president later tweeted that intelligence reports indicated that China’s government “is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong.”
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“Everyone should be calm and safe!” he added.
Critics and allies alike said that the combination of Mr. Trump’s relative disinterest in human rights and his narrow focus on America’s economic relationship with China leave him with little appetite for taking sides in the escalating showdown between China’s government and the protesters in Hong Kong. But some warned that he was tacitly approving what many fear could be the most brutal suppression of democratic dissent in China in nearly 30 years.
In his comments to reporters, Mr. Trump did allow that he “hopes it works out for liberty,” without explaining what he meant. He did not offer any opinions about the protesters’ demands for more political freedom and protection from mainland China’s growing influence in the former British colony.
This month, Mr. Trump echoed Chinese state media by calling the demonstrations “riots” and said, “That’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China.”
Democrats have been sharply critical of Mr. Trump, painting him as weak and equivocal in the face of a threat to fundamental American values.
“This is not foreign policy,” Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, responded on Twitter to Mr. Trump’s tweets. On Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat who is running for president, tweeted that the people of Hong Kong “deserve our support and the support of the world.”
Michael Pillsbury, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who advises the Trump administration on China policy, said the president was almost exclusively animated by the economic relationship between the United States and China and saw human rights violations as a diversion.
“The regime has to change its economic model and its trade misconduct and World Trade Organization violations,” Mr. Pillsbury said. “That’s his focus.”
Mr. Trump has bashed China’s economic policies for decades, including in several of his books. But one of them, “The America We Deserve,” published in 2000, also condemned China’s political system and praised his own “unwillingness to shrug off the mistreatment of China’s citizens by their own government.” Mr. Trump branded China “an oppressive regime,” adding, “Let’s not pretend we’re dealing with anything less.”
Image“I hope it works out for everybody, including China,” Mr. Trump told reporters as he left New Jersey for an official event in Pennsylvania.
“I hope it works out for everybody, including China,” Mr. Trump told reporters as he left New Jersey for an official event in Pennsylvania.CreditAnna Moneymaker/The New York Times
Today, Mr. Trump’s willingness to look the other way has made him an outlier in his own party.
On Monday, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, tweeted a warning that a violent crackdown on the protests “would be completely unacceptable,” adding, “The world is watching.” And Mr. Trump’s State Department took a notably more supportive line toward the demonstrators than the president did.
“We condemn violence and urge all sides to exercise restraint, but remain staunch in our support for freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in Hong Kong,” the department said in a statement. “Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are core values that we share with Hong Kong; these freedoms must be vigorously protected.”
Some foreign policy experts noted that Mr. Trump once spoke with seeming admiration of China’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1990, telling Playboy magazine: “They were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
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