Report

Trump: China Is Out to Get Me

The White House accuses China of engaging in election interference.

U.S. President Donald Trump listens during the U.N. Security Council briefing on counterproliferation at United Nations headquarters in New York on Sept. 26. (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump listens during the U.N. Security Council briefing on counterproliferation at United Nations headquarters in New York on Sept. 26. (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump accused Beijing of seeking to disrupt the U.S. midterm elections and steer votes in key battleground states toward Democratic candidates seeking to regain control of the House and Senate after years in the political wilderness.

“Regrettably, we found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration,” Trump said in a U.N. Security Council meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi seated across the table. “They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade. We are winning on trade. We are winning at every level,” he said, veering off course in a meeting that was supposed to be about proliferation concerns.

Trump administration officials hastily convened a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon to explain the president’s remarks. According to a senior administration official, what Trump considers election interference includes Chinese retaliatory tariffs against Midwest farmers, intimidation of journalists and academics, and funding for state-controlled news outlets. He also mentioned Chinese government-led influence operations meant to bolster China’s long-term influence in key countries, including the United States.

But he didn’t identify any specific Chinese activity that went beyond typical propaganda and retaliatory trade actions and nothing that could be compared to the covert influence operation carried out by Russia in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Following his remarks, Trump angrily tweeted about an advertising supplement purchased by the state-owned China Daily in Sunday’s Des Moines Register. That stand-alone supplement, which was clearly identified as a China Daily ad, warned about the risks of Trump’s tariffs on Iowa farmers. The ad has infuriated the White House, which believes China is trying to tip the election in a key battle state to the Democrats.

Later in the day, Trump addressed the advertorial directly and said China was attacking the farm belt with “ads … that don’t look like ads.”

“They don’t want me to get elected because this has never happened to them,” Trump said, referring to the tariffs he has imposed on billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese goods. “They are trying to meddle in our elections. And we’re not going to let that happen, just as we’re not going to let that happen with Russia.”

At a press conference late Wednesday, reporters pressed Trump to provide evidence backing up his claim of Chinese meddling. Trump said he was in possession of evidence but wasn’t ready to make it public. According to a senior administration official, Vice President Mike Pence will deliver an address next week in which he will provide additional details.

In his remarks before the council, Trump made no mention of Russia’s role in trying to tilt the 2016 election in his favor and its ongoing efforts to interfere in this year’s midterm elections.

The European Union, also hit by U.S. tariffs, has responded with carefully targeted retaliatory tariffs aimed at key political districts, including Wisconsin-made Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Kentucky bourbon. The White House did not identify Brussels as meddling in the elections.

In separate remarks Tuesday, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats described China’s activities in cyberspace as “unprecedented in scale” and said Beijing was “trying to exploit any divisions between federal and local levels on policy.”

Wang, China’s foreign minister, denied that his government was meddling, telling the 15-nation U.N. council: “We did not and will not interfere in any countries’ domestic affairs. We refuse to accept any unwarranted accusations against China.”

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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