Vice President Pence on Thursday became the latest top official to participate in the subterfuge.
In a major speech on China, he claimed that Beijing “wants a different American president” and that the nation “is meddling in America’s democracy.”
Pence even made this claim: “As a senior career member of our intelligence community told me just this week, what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country, and the American people deserve to know it.”
“Regrettably we found China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election, coming up in November, against my administration. They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president to ever challenge China on trade, and we are winning on trade — we are winning on every level. We don’t want them to meddle or interfere in our upcoming election.”
One problem: The administration has yet to produce evidence of actual election interference by China — or to even cite credible specific allegations.
Just a couple of months ago, Trump’s top national security advisers did not specify any major efforts at election interference by any country except Russia. A hastily arranged White House conference call after Trump’s U.N. claim last week attempted to substantiate claims about China but instead cited propaganda efforts, such as the advertising supplement bought by Chinese state media in an Iowa newspaper and the tariffs imposed by Beijing.
Trump was also later pressed on the claim and suggested there was evidence he could not share and cited the tariffs. “They’ve actually admitted that they’ve gone after farmers,” Trump said.
Except . . . none of that is really election interference, and it’s not anything like what Russia did during the 2016 election.
First, it’s entirely possible there is something the Trump administration and the intelligence community has not told us about alleged Chinese election interference. But the lack of specifics and the citing of tariffs sure makes it look as if Trump made a claim that they then had to find facts to try to justify.
Second, it’s true that China’s (and other countries') retaliatory tariffs are politically targeted. The Brookings Institution has done a good job documenting the disproportionate impact on Trump-voting counties. That could plausibly be geared toward affecting the election outcome, but it could also simply be an attempt to prevent Trump from ratcheting up his trade war and imposing more tariffs. It’s also not strictly “election interference.”
And third, it is undoubtedly true that China employs aggressive influence campaigns. The U.S. intelligence community and national security establishment have very real and very justified concerns about China as a geopolitical foe. But, again, this is not the same as saying it is engaging in bona fide illegal election interference.
Pence seems to have taken care to not explicitly accuse China of election interference while leaving the impression that he is confirming Trump’s allegation. He said China “is meddling in America’s democracy” — but notably didn’t say “election.” Pence also leaned upon an anonymous quote to compare China’s efforts with Russia’s interference, without noting that it is not apples-to-apples. And he slipped in a claim that China is trying to unseat Trump — a clear counterpoint to Russia’s favoritism for Trump, which is a big part of the story line that Trump hates.
All of it plays to what Trump wants to hear and downplays Russian interference. See, it isn’t just Russia! See, foreign influence isn’t just helping Trump! See, everyone has focused on Russia when China is worse! Initially, Trump even tried to blame Russia’s 2016 election interference on China. But it’s not election interference that we are talking about, at least not until the administration substantiates Trump’s claim.
Whether these officials are directly being pressured to say these things or they view it as the cost of doing business with Trump, it’s misleading, often highly so. They may view their comments as harmless, but they have the very unhelpful effect of diminishing the idea of Russian election interference at a time when we are being warned of a repeat.
If the administration has real evidence of Chinese interference in U.S. elections, it should produce it. Absent that, this looks like the latest effort to muddy the waters.