Excerpted with permission from ‘The Room Where It Happened’ by John Bolton, published by Simon & Schuster India.
Donald Trump came increasingly to view China as trying to influence the 2018 congressional elections against Republicans, and more important (to him), as working for his defeat in 2020.
There was plenty of logic supporting both propositions, with good reason if you looked at the significant increase in US military spending under Trump, and the trade war. In our public statements on foreign government efforts to meddle in US elections, we correctly referred to both China and Russia.
China was also trying to leverage Trump’s primal urge to make deals to its economic advantage, hoping to push us into “trade agreements” that didn’t resolve the structural issues that were the real cause of the economic and political disputes between us.
Beijing had to know how deeply divided Trump’s China advisors were, because they could read about it routinely in the media.
We looked at China’s election-related efforts as part of one of the broadest influence operations ever undertaken, far broader than what Democrats and the media obsessed over in 2016.
Viewed without partisan blinders, China could bring considerably greater resources to bear on this effort than Russia. This was serious, and required a serious response.
One answer was a judicious declassification review, done with care and prudence, especially not to jeopardize intelligence sources and methods, but enabling us to lay before the American people what we were up against. Trump referred publicly to China’s efforts when he addressed the UN Security Council in September 2018, but it received little press attention.
Trump spoke with Xi Jinping by phone on June 18, ahead of 2019’s Osaka G20 summit, when they would next meet. Trump began by telling Xi he missed him, and then said that the most popular thing he had ever been involved with was making a trade deal with China, which would be a big plus politically. They agreed their economic teams could continue meeting.
The G20 bilateral arrived, and during the usual media mayhem at the start, Trump said, “We’ve become friends. My trip to Beijing with my family was one of the most incredible of my life.”
With the press gone, Xi said this is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. He said that some (unnamed) political figures in the United States were making erroneous judgments by calling for a new cold war, this time between China and the United States.
Trump’s Stunning Request for Help
Whether Xi meant to finger the Democrats, or some of us sitting on the US side of the table, I don’t know, but Trump immediately assumed Xi meant the Democrats. Trump said approvingly that there was great hostility among the Democrats.
He then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming US presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win.
He stressed the importance of farmers, and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome. I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.
Trump then raised the negotiations’ collapse in May, urging China to return to the positions it had retracted. Breezing by China’s failure to do anything on fentanyl and its seizure of Canadian hostages (not to mention the American hostages), both discussed in Buenos Aires, Trump urged that the two sides start from where they had left off in May and pursue the negotiations to conclude the most exciting, largest deal ever made.
Out of nowhere, Xi answered by comparing the impact of an unequal deal with us to the “humiliation” of the Treaty of Versailles, which had taken Shandong province from Germany but given it to Japan. Xi said with a straight face that if China suffered the same humiliation in our trade negotiations, there would be an upsurge of patriotic feeling in China, implicitly indicating that that feeling would be directed against the United States.
Trump manifestly had no idea what Xi was referring to, but said that a treaty of non-equals was not in Xi’s blood. History being a very easy subject for Trump once it was broached, he implied China owed the US a favor for knocking Japan out of World War II. Xi then lectured us on how China fought for nineteen years, and relied mainly on themselves to defeat the Japanese aggressors.
Of course, this was just as nonsensical; the Chinese Communists had spent most of the war ducking Japan and trying to undercut the Chinese Nationalists. The war ended when it did because we used atomic bombs, but Xi was reciting history from the Communist catechism, not that Trump understood that either.
Toward the end of the trade issue, Trump proposed that for the remaining $350 billion of trade imbalances (by Trump’s arithmetic), the US would not impose tariffs, but he again returned to importuning Xi and China to buy as many American farm products as they could.
Then, they would see if a deal were possible.
The Greatest Chinese Leader!
Trump asked Liu He if we could make a deal from where we were before China backtracked in May. Liu looked like a deer in the headlights, speechless, clearly not wanting to answer. After a pregnant silence, Trump highlighted Liu’s awkwardness by saying he had never seen him so quiet.
Turning to Xi, Trump asked him what the answer was, since he was the only one with the courage to answer it. Xi agreed that we should restart the trade talks, welcoming Trump’s concession that there would be no new tariffs, and agreeing that the two negotiating teams should resume discussions on farm products on a priority basis.
“You’re the greatest Chinese leader in three hundred years!” exulted Trump, amending it a few minutes later to be “the greatest leader in Chinese history.” After a drive-by discussion of North Korea, since Trump was on his way to Seoul that evening, that was that on trade.
Xi returned to the Liu children, recalling that they had been discussed in Buenos Aires on December 1, calling them Chinese citizens (they were actually dual US-Chinese citizens). Stunningly, he said quite casually they were barred from leaving China to get them to cooperate in a money-laundering investigation of their father, arguing that by failing to cooperate, the Lius were endangering Chinese national security.
Xi then said pointedly that December 1 was the same night that Meng Wanzhou, Huawei CFO, had been arrested. He concluded vaguely that the two sides could stay in touch. Of course, Xi was then perfectly comfortable complaining that not enough visas were being issued for Chinese students who wanted to come to the United States!
Trade talks with China resumed after Osaka, but progress was negligible. Trump seemed inclined to hedge, tweeting on July 30, against the advice of Mnuchin and Lighthizer:
As the negotiations continued, there was simply no indication of real movement from China. After yet another Lighthizer-Mnuchin visit to Beijing, they reported to Trump in the Oval on August 1.
Trump had nothing good to say, opening with, “You shouldn’t have gone there. It makes us look weak.” He had actually been musing about more tariffs the day before, saying to me with a wink and a smile, “I’m much more like you than you know.” Trump was now even more convinced China was waiting to see who won in 2020, believing “they want the President to lose.”
Trump finally said, “I want to put tariffs on. They’re tapping you along,” and we turned to whether to impose tariffs on another $350 billion of Chinese exports to the United States. Trump said to Mnuchin, “You talk too much. Don’t be scared, Steve.”
Lighthizer for some reason worried that our trade war with China was hurting Europe, which only added fuel to the fire, provoking the familiar Trump refrain, “The EU is worse than China, only smaller,” as he decided to impose the next round of tariffs on Beijing, via Twitter, of course:
This was a huge decision, causing great angst in Trump’s economic team, which was pretty much where things stood when I resigned on September 10. Subsequent negotiations did lead to a “deal” announced in December, which was, in substance, less than met the eye.
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