Oh, and while we weren't looking? Donald Trump totally blew it on Hong Kong

Behind the tough talk, Trump has simply accepted China's crackdown on Hong Kong. It didn't have to be this way

Published May 29, 2020 6:00PM (EDT)

Protesters chant slogans during a protest on June 12, 2019 in Hong Kong China.  (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
Protesters chant slogans during a protest on June 12, 2019 in Hong Kong China. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

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Donald Trump on Friday outlined a series of punitive measures against the Chinese government for a recent move that essentially put an end to political freedom in Hong Kong.

But notably, he didn't call on China to back off and respect the human rights of Hong Kong's residents, an issue that has traditionally been a high priority for U.S. presidents.

"China claims it is protecting national security," Trump read from his prepared text. "But the truth is that Hong Kong was secure and prosperous as a free society. Beijing's decision reverses all of that. It extends the reach of China's invasive state security apparatus into what was formerly a bastion of liberty."

He treated it like it's a done deal. And it is — in part because Trump has flushed whatever credibility and leverage the U.S. might have had with China down the toilet.

With the news cycle spinning with so many other, juicier stories, the Hong Kong news has gone largely unnoticed by the Washington media. But Trump's political contortions and confabulations have now taken their toll not just at home, but on the 7.5 million residents of a vibrant, once-free city who will now likely find any political resistance to the Chinese Communist Party's central government severely punished.

First Trump cozied up to China's autocratic president, Xi Jinping, during trade negotiations.  After the deal, he repeatedly lied about how China was paying huge tariffs, which are actually being paid by U.S. buyers. Then, in recent weeks, he ratcheted up tensions with China to dramatically high levels in a politically-motivated attempt to shift the blame for U.S. pandemic deaths away from his administration and onto China instead.

As Don Lee reported for the Los Angeles Times last week, "relations between the world's largest economic and military powers seemed to have taken a dangerous new turn."

It's a turn toward an emboldened China, to be specific. "Xi has apparently concluded that with the United States preoccupied with the pandemic, its economic devastation and the looming presidential election, he has an opportunity for drastic steps, possibly including making a move in Taiwan," Lee wrote.

Then again, Xi might have seen the green light considerably earlier. Trump gave up any pretense of defending Hong Kong's semi-autonomous status back in June 2019, when he reportedly told Xi in a private phone call that the U.S. would remain quiet about repression of the enormous pro-democracy protests that were raging at that time.

As CNN reported then: "The remarkable pledge to the Chinese leader is a dramatic departure from decades of US support for human rights in China."

Trump's failure to stand up for Hong Kong was widely anticipated by those who were paying attention.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted on Thursday:

Alexander Görlach, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, declared on Wednesday that "Hong Kong is lost," and worried that, barring "serious consequences," China would be "emboldened by its success" enough to "attempt to annex Taiwan."

Ron Klain, a top adviser to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, tweeted on Wednesday:

The New York Times editorial board on Wednesday raised the issue of whether  Trump "has the leverage, support or stomach for the fight" for Hong Kong, but then concluded that he does not, in part because he "has never shown much concern for Hong Kong protests against China," and in part because "he and his lieutenants have made China-bashing over the coronavirus outbreak a central theme in their re-election campaign."

Trump, the editorial concluded, "was left with no option but to acknowledge the new reality." And it warned: "How this latest showdown plays out could have major ramifications for the future of Taiwan and for China's behavior in its neighborhood and the world."

The Washington Post editorial board wrote last week: "It doesn't help that President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been heaping abuse on the Xi regime in recent weeks as a way of distracting from the Trump administration's abysmal response to the COVID-19 pandemic; in fact, the mounting U.S. hostility may have persuaded Mr. Xi that he had little to lose by smothering Hong Kong."

The South China Morning Post quoted Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce for China in Beijing, saying: "Trump is not interested in anything but himself and [compared] to slaughtering the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to dismantling the WTO or pulling out of the [World Health Organization], actually changing the state of Hong Kong is a small piece for him."

Trump has barely mentioned Hong Kong at all in recent weeks. Prior to Friday's comments, his most recent words about Hong Kong came during a May 21 news conference, where he was asked about the national security law cracking down on Hong Kong that the Chinese parliament was about to pass.

"I don't know what it is because nobody knows yet. If it happens, we'll address that issue very strongly," he said.

By Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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