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An Embattled Trump Unveils a New China Policy

The president took to the Rose Garden Friday while contending with parallel crises.

President Trump speaks to the press after meeting with Republican Senators in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, May 19, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON– It’s heating up.

As the United States embarks on a fourth month of a chain reaction of crises spurred by the novel Coronavirus, a president with flagging re-election chances addressed a weary nation Friday. Donald Trump and senior members of his foreign policy and economic teams — top diplomat Michael R. Pompeo, leading China hawk Peter Navarro, trade representative Robert Lighthizer, National Security Council chief Robert C. O’Brien and Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin — unveiled fresh policy on the People’s Republic of China. Trump’s national address in the Rose Garden Friday was the first since anarchic protests broke out in several American cities — centrally, Minneapolis — earlier this week, in response to the controversial death of Minnesota man George Floyd at the hands of police, which followed months of national frustration.

China hawks — including Navarro and powerbroker, informal advisors to the administration such as Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon — have repeatedly urged an uncompromising response to the hostile actors in Beijing. Proponents of a tougher line have consistently argued for a nationally-minded surge of power: the United States should have a tariff policy, and it should begin returning the nation’s critical supply chains closer to Washington’s orbit. Yet, while Trump has been the most tough-minded president on China in at least a generation, he has remained something of a moderate within his own court, as well as within a broader American foreign policy community that’s wised up and changed its mind on the Chinese state. 

Balancing a national security legacy with shorter-term, finance-minded considerations has been a hallmark of the Trump approach. This was perhaps most on display with the negotiation of the flawed “Phase One” trade deal that was inked just before the pandemic began battering the American mainland. After laying out the depressing recent history of American diplomacy toward Beijing, the president — true to form — began his address on the subject with an equivocal tone: “But I have never solely blamed China for this. They were able to get away with the theft, like no one was able to get away with before, because of past politicians, and frankly, past presidents.”

Still, what was obvious Friday at the White House was a paradigm shift unimaginable even five years ago, just before Trump announced for president. “We must have answers,” Trump said. “Not only for us, but for the rest of the world. This pandemic has underscored the crucial importance of building up America’s economic independence, re-shoring our critical supply chains, and protecting America’s scientific and technological advances.” The president said the United States is severing its relationship with the World Health Organization — under fire since the inception of the crisis for its toadyism toward the Chinese state. And he echoed the disappointing news announced by Pompeo earlier this week — that in the face of recent Chinese actions, the United States can longer consider the leadership in Hong Kong distinct from the Communist Party. 

about the author

Curt Mills is Senior Reporter at TAC covering national security, the 2020 campaign and the Trump presidency. Previously, he reported for The National Interest, Washington Examiner, U.S. News & World Report and the Spectator. Mills was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and is a native and resident of Washington, D.C.

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