President Trump on Thursday lavished praise on Chinese leader Xi Jinping, calling him “a friend,” “a terrific guy,” as well as a “good man” and “a great leader” who “loves China” — and saying nothing about the death of that country’s best known dissident, Liu Xiaobo, even as other U.S. political figures mourned the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s passing.
Trump had been asked at a joint press conference in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron for his assessment of Xi. The French leader likewise omitted any mention of Liu, who rose to prominence during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, was sentenced to an 11-year prison term in 2009 and died Thursday after a battle with late-stage liver cancer. Several hours later, the White House issued a statement saying Trump was “deeply saddened” about Liu’s death.
Asked about the Chinese president, Trump declared Xi “a friend of mine” and added, “I have great respect for him — we have gotten to know each other very well — a great leader.”
Trump went on: “He’s a very talented man, I think he’s a very good man. He loves China, I can tell you, he loves China. He wants to do what’s right for China.”
On the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, Trump said “probably he could do a little bit more” to rein in the regime in Pyongyang.
But, the U.S. president noted, China has taken some steps to defuse trade disputes with the United States.
“President Xi is a terrific guy,” Trump concluded. “I like being with him a lot and he’s a very special person.”
Several hours after the press conference concluded, the White House press secretary issued a statement about Liu’s death.
“President Donald J. Trump was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and prominent Chinese political prisoner Liu Xiaobo,” the statement said. “The President’s heartfelt condolences go out to Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, and his family and friends. A poet, scholar, and courageous advocate, Liu Xiaobo dedicated his life to the pursuit of democracy and liberty.”
Macron was less effusive, noting that he had accepted Xi’s invitation to visit China later this year or in early 2018 but noting, “I can’t say that he’s a friend,” because “I want words to have meaning.”
But, the French president said, initial discussions with Xi have been “extremely fruitful and entirely positive,” and “I have a lot of respect for President Xi.”
Macron noted Xi’s rhetorical embrace of multilateral institutions and his will to battle climate change — a sore spot with Trump, who withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord.
The Sino-French relationship has “some sensitive spots,” notably on trade, but has “a shared will to resolve” any disputes, notably on trade, Macron said. And China is “an indispensable partner” on a range of international issues, especially “growing tensions” with North Korea.
And Xi “is today one of the great leaders in our world,” Macron said.
The two leaders’ silence on Liu at the press conference came as American political figures mourned the 2010 Nobel laureate.
In a scathing statement, Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., said the dissident’s death “was the last barbaric violation of Dr. Liu’s human rights” and charged that Beijing “brutalizes its own citizens” and has “bullied its neighbors and destabilized the Asia-Pacific.”
“The United States of America should demand the immediate release of Dr. Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, and make clear that we will not tolerate China’s pervasive violation of human rights,” McCain said.
Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — long a fervent critic of China’s human rights record — mourned the loss of “one of the great moral voices of our time” and said Liu’s imprisonment for advocating democratic reforms illustrated “China’s shameful disregard for basic freedoms.”
And, Pelosi said, “If we do not speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests, then we lose all moral authority to talk about human rights any other place in the world.“
Shortly before Trump and Macron’s press conference, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement that he mourned Liu’s death and offered “heartfelt condolences” to the dissident’s widow.
“I call on the Chinese government to release Liu Xia from house arrest and allow her to depart China, according to her wishes,” Tillerson said.
“In his fight for freedom, equality, and constitutional rule in China, Liu Xiaobo embodied the human spirit that the Nobel Prize rewards,” the top U.S. diplomat said. “In his death, he has only reaffirmed the Nobel Committee’s selection.”
Updated at 6:03 p.m. ET to include the White House’s statement on Liu’s death.
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