Trump Finally Found a Chinese Import He Likes: Corruption
Enlisting Beijing to interfere in the U.S. election is no joke.
President Donald Trump has doubled down on a political tactic that strains the limits of credulity: publicly demanding that foreign powers help him win in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Trump told reporters in October that the United States’ greatest geopolitical rival, China, should investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, over his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings there. It is difficult to overstate how damaging this request is to U.S. national security. The Chinese Communist Party uses the fight against corruption as an excuse to go after political rivals. Trump wants to import that tactic to the United States—with Beijing’s help.
This is all unfolding in the midst of a massive, ongoing trade war between the United States and China, along with a growing series of geopolitical challenges posed by Beijing, including the repression of Uighur Muslims and crackdowns on protesters in Hong Kong. China aside, Trump is already facing an impeachment inquiry over apparent efforts to leverage Ukraine into carrying out the same request: an investigation into Hunter Biden’s business relationships. According to William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Trump tried to condition military aid on Ukraine helping to smear Trump’s rival. The impeachment investigation is underway, but the facts are already clear—and they are damning. If Congress ends up issuing articles of impeachment over Trump’s apparent abuse of power to advance his personal interests, the request for China’s help should be included among the offenses.
Trump has embraced the controversy and is trying to convince us that his behavior is normal. But using the power of the presidency to request that a foreign government—especially an authoritarian, communist government—help smear a domestic political rival is not normal. It’s a breach of the most solemn oath the commander in chief takes—to defend the United States against all enemies. It is hard to imagine an offense more worthy of impeachment.
However polarizing and contentious their disagreements, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, should all be on the same page about protecting U.S. national security. We all want what’s best for the American people, even if we disagree about how to get there. One thing we should all agree on is that no foreign country should be encouraged to intervene in the U.S. democratic system. But Trump has disregarded that norm since he first jumped on the campaign trail. In 2016, he asked Russia to help him win, and it did. Now he has asked Ukraine and China to do the same.
China presents the greatest geopolitical challenge that the United States will face from a single country in the coming decades. Whether it’s the way China undercuts the U.S. economy or threatens aggression against U.S. regional allies, the United States must stand united in tackling these threats. In 2015, when former President Barack Obama was in office, he confronted Chinese attempts to use hacking to steal information from U.S. individuals and businesses by threatening sanctions that helped secure an agreement from Beijing to stop. Trump, on the other hand, has invited China to invade the privacy of Americans and to do so for his own personal benefit.
Even if China ignores Trump’s request, his behavior is still beyond the pale of acceptable political conduct. It is clear that his foreign policy is for sale to the highest bidders, no matter who they are—even the Chinese Communist Party. He has placed the security and prosperity of Americans at risk in order to advance his own political (and financial) fortunes. And, let’s remember, it’s illegal even to ask a foreign entity for help in an election—as the chair of the U.S. Federal Election Commission recent reiterated—which Trump just did numerous times.
Trump’s actions reveal how much he is willing not just to call on but to emulate China’s authoritarian government. While the power of the Chinese Communist Party rests on a corrupt foundation of repression, in recent years President Xi Jinping has pursued a vigorous (and hypocritical) campaign to remove those he perceives as rivals through what Beijing calls an anti-corruption campaign, accusing high-ranking officials of wrongdoing, staging show trials, and jailing them. Trump likewise is trying to use the veneer of fighting corruption to go after his political rivals, and in the process he is proving just how corrupt he is.
Instead of trying to find common ground for a coherent China policy, Trump has sided with China against his fellow Americans, potentially opening the door to even more compromising behavior. Which U.S. interests is Trump willing to sacrifice in order to secure Chinese support in his reelection bid? Would he drop his demands that China stop stealing U.S. business secrets and unleashing violence on peaceful protesters in Hong Kong? Would he look the other way as China dumped deadly fentanyl into U.S. markets? Would he sell out U.S. allies?
Many Republican senators, such as Cory Gardner of Colorado, have been making the case for the United States to take a hard stance against growing Chinese assertiveness, unfair economic practices, and attempts to undermine democracy and liberal norms abroad. These senators—who champion the Trump administration’s identification of China as a rival great power in the U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy—should stand up for their beliefs when the president, whom they support, denigrates them in the worst possible way. Instead, so far, most Republican lawmakers have merely tried to brush Trump’s remarks aside, claiming it was all a joke.
While Trump has shifted erratically between initiating a trade war with China and cozying up to Xi, his call for help in the election should remind us that Trump seems to pursue only one interest—his own. He has shown himself willing to sell the United States down the river, to China or anyone else, in the name of self-preservation and enrichment.
If that’s not impeachable conduct, what is?
Kelly Magsamen is the vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress and a former senior White House and Pentagon official. Twitter: @kellymagsamen