Shortly after he became president, Donald Trump made it abundantly clear that human rights were not among his chief concerns. When asked in an interview about Vladimir Putin having his political opponents assassinated, Trump suggested some kind of comparison between that and what happens in the United States. “There are a lot of killers,” he said. “You think our country’s so innocent?”
Since then, it has been evident that human rights are something President Trump often views as more of an obstacle than an ideal. Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton’s new book sheds a huge amount of light on just how that has allegedly played out behind the scenes.
In revelations from The Washington Post and the New York Times and an excerpt of his book published by the Wall Street Journal, Bolton paints a picture of a president unconcerned with and often downright disdainful of human rights issues.
The Post’s Josh Dawsey reports Bolton says a controversial, exclamation-point-laden missive Trump wrote in 2018 defending Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman from culpability for the murder of Washington Post global opinions columnist Jamal Khashoggi had an ulterior motive. Trump, Bolton says, did it to distract from a budding controversy involving his daughter Ivanka Trump:
But according to Bolton’s book, the main goal of the missive was to take away attention from a story about Ivanka Trump using her personal email for government business.“This will divert from Ivanka,” Trump said, according to Bolton’s book. “If I read the statement in person, that will take over the Ivanka thing.”
Even more remarkably, Bolton’s excerpt in the Wall Street Journal recounts several episodes in which Trump shrugged off China’s human rights abuses — and in one case even seemed to encourage perhaps the worst of them.
The most damning passage comes when Trump, in Bolton’s telling, on two occasions actually encouraged Chinese President Xi Jinping to use concentration camps for Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province:
Trump asked me at the 2018 White House Christmas dinner why we were considering sanctioning China over its treatment of the Uighurs, a largely Muslim people who live primarily in China’s northwest Xinjiang Province.At the opening dinner of the Osaka G-20 meeting in June 2019, with only interpreters present, Xi had explained to Trump why he was basically building concentration camps in Xinjiang. According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do. The National Security Council’s top Asia staffer, Matthew Pottinger, told me that Trump said something very similar during his November 2017 trip to China.
The reported exchange in Osaka came just a month before Trump in July 2019 met with victims of political persecution, including Uighurs, and declared of his devotion to religious rights, “I don’t think any president has taken it as seriously as me.”
The White House announced shortly after the news broke Wednesday that Trump had signed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020. Trump had for months vacillated on signing the bill, but word leaked out June 8 that he would sign it. That news came the day after Bolton had said he was moving forward with releasing his book, whose contents the White House would have known about after months of reviewing it for classified information and refusing to sign off on it.
While the new allegations are apparently secondhand, they flow from many of the events Bolton describes having more intimate knowledge of.
Around the same time, Hong Kong engaged in massive protests over China’s alleged bullying. When informed of the more than a million people who turned out, Trump responded, according to Bolton, “That’s a big deal.” But he added, “I don’t want to get involved,” and, “We have human rights problems, too.”
Bolton says Trump also pointedly declined to issue a statement on the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square in 2019, wrongly saying, “That was 15 years ago,” and adding: “Who cares about it? I’m trying to make a deal. I don’t want anything.”
(Trump in 1990 seemed to praise China for being able to put down the protests in Tiananmen — comments that were recalled recently when Trump’s administration cleared Lafayette Square near the White House of overwhelmingly peaceful protesters shortly before Trump walked through it for a photo op.)
Trump’s devotion to cutting a trade deal with China seems to have overridden all other concerns, even resulting in Trump taking a soft line on China early in the coronavirus outbreak, which Trump has now sought to pretend away. As The Post’s Dawsey reports, at one point Trump even appealed to Xi to help him cut a deal to benefit Trump’s reelection, Bolton says.
Trump’s aversion to human rights appears to also apply to the United States, where he has labeled the mainstream media the “enemy of the people” and during the 2016 election joked suggestively about whether he wanted to kill journalists. According to Dawsey, Bolton now says Trump at one point said that is exactly what journalists deserve. Trump said they should be put in jail until they divulge their sources, adding: “These people should be executed. They are scumbags.”
Any of these comments could have been off the cuff or even hyperbolic, as is Trump’s mode. The totality of them — and of his presidency — indicates Trump is significantly less concerned about the human rights impacts of his administration than most any modern American president, especially when weighed against the deals he could cut with the likes of Putin, Xi and the Saudi royal family. There is always a balance to be struck in dealing with allies and others with whom the United States engages in trade and other business, but Trump has erred in a completely unique direction.
Trump’s defense of Saudi Arabia’s Mohamed is particularly stunning, in Bolton’s telling: Trump decided to issue a remarkable statement essentially shrugging his shoulders at the brutal mutilation of a journalist who lived in the United States, and his preeminent concern in doing so was to take the heat off a family member.
That says perhaps more than anything else.