Now, for his third act — this one involving China — Trump just came out and said it.
This might be Trump’s most problematic request of this sort, for a number of reasons.
Trump on Thursday publicly said China should launch an investigation into Hunter Biden’s work in the country. “And by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine,” Trump said.
He added later that he had not brought the matter up with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but that he might.
“I haven’t, but it’s certainly something we can start thinking about because I’m sure that President Xi does not like being under that kind of scrutiny where billions of dollars is taken out of his country by a guy that just got kicked out of the Navy,” Trump said. “He got kicked out of the Navy. All of a sudden he’s getting billions of dollars. You know what they call that? They call that a payoff.”
It’s not clear exactly what Trump is alleging here, nor has it been when Trump has previously invoked China while talking about the Bidens. But arguably, even more than his request to Ukraine, this one has the potential for a really corrupt appearance.
The chief reason for that: Trump is currently engaged in a trade war with China.
Trump certainly had — and has — leverage over Ukraine, both by virtue of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to that country and because of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s quest for a personal meeting with Trump. Neither was mentioned on their July 25 call as being part of an explicit quid pro quo, but it’s not difficult to see Zelensky having come away with that perception. Right before Trump asked for the investigations, he made a point of emphasizing how “very, very good” the United States is to Ukraine, and then he asked for “a favor.” Trump also appeared to grant Zelensky’s long-sought White House meeting after Zelensky suggested he would pursue the investigations Trump requested.
The U.S.-China relationship does not include such a power imbalance, in which it might look like Trump is picking on a small country to force it to bend to his will. But he does have significant leverage when it comes to China, notably because of the trade war he launched.
Most of the most provocative moves in the trade war have been made by Trump, who started this whole thing and has been more anxious to ramp things up. China could very logically now believe that further escalations might be tied to whether it takes the actions Trump wants. Any future decisions could be colored accordingly.
And indeed, shortly before delivering the above quotes, Trump was explicitly talking about his leverage over China.
“I have a lot of options on China, but if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power,” Trump said. Thirty seconds later, he was talking about the investigations. If you’re China, you have to wonder if those things might be related in Trump’s mind.
Where this could lead to an even stickier situation, though, is if there is a trade war resolution before the 2020 election. Some Trump advisers have urged him to come to some kind of deal by then, for fear of the gambit backfiring in the November election. Let’s consider for a moment that China investigates the Bidens (and we learn about it), and then Trump cuts some kind of deal with China. How would we ever know that a very personal political favor wasn’t a factor in Trump giving China a deal with more favorable terms than he might have otherwise?
There’s a whole lot of ifs built into that. We don’t even know whether China would be willing to “play ball,” as the Ukraine whistleblower put it. (For what it’s worth, we have not seen signs that Ukraine has actually given Trump what he wants.) But that’s the unholy setup.
And even if you set aside the trade war, this is still a U.S. president suggesting that a foreign country do something that is transparently geared toward his own reelection bid. Trump has intermittently argued — however implausibly — that his effort to get Ukraine to launch investigations is about rooting out corruption in that country; his now-public request of another investigation involving the Bidens makes clear what this is really about.
Republicans have been somewhat muted about condemning Trump’s request of Ukraine. And for their troubles, they have now got him very publicly doing the kind of thing they would formerly condemn at the drop of a hat — and complicating a trade war in the process.
There’s a reason Trump insisted he was joking about “Russia, if you’re listening.” Even then, that was considered beyond the pale. Not so much anymore.