The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bystander in chief: Trump’s hands-off response to Hong Kong fits a pattern

President Trump visits a Shell facility on Tuesday, in Monaca, Pa. (Susan Walsh/AP)

President Trump’s largely hands-off response to the violent clashes between pro-democracy protesters and authorities in Hong Kong fits a pattern: The president as bystander in chief, an onlooker to world events that previous leaders would almost certainly have decried as assaults on democracy or human rights.

Trump often deflects or plays down U.S. interest in events whose connection to the United States may not seem immediate, as he did this week with Hong Kong.

President Trump said Thursday that Chinese President Xi Jinping should meet with the protesters to resolve the standoff. He did not endorse the pro-democracy cause or warn China off a military crackdown.

“If President Xi would meet directly and personally with the protesters, there would be a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem,” Trump said in a tweet. “I have no doubt!”

The post came one day after Trump tweeted that he had “ZERO doubt” that Xi could “quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem” if he wanted to.

China’s government has recently likened the protests to U.S.-backed “terrorism,” and a meeting between Xi and the demonstrators is unlikely.

Earlier this week, thousands of protesters shut down Hong Kong’s international airport, defying an intensifying police crackdown. But the protests were marred by late-night mob scenes, as demonstrators seized two men — one a reporter for Chinese state media, another they claimed to be a Chinese government agent — and clashed with police and paramedics who tried to evacuate the pair.

The episode marked a dramatic escalation after months of protests and marches by the demonstrators. They initially took to the streets in opposition to a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, but as fears of Beijing’s erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy have grown, the scope of the protesters’ demands has widened.

Trump has positioned himself firmly on the sidelines.

He has appealed for calm but did not lay out consequences if China acts against demonstrators, even as other political figures and the State Department did so, or refute the Chinese claims of a U.S. hand in protests.

“Many are blaming me, and the United States, for the problems going on in Hong Kong. I can’t imagine why?” Trump tweeted Tuesday.

The same day, Trump gave only implicit and offhand endorsement to the protesters’ calls for liberty in the face of widening Chinese government control over the banking and commercial hub.

“The Hong Kong thing is a very tough situation. Very tough. We’ll see what happens,” Trump said when asked by a reporter Tuesday whether he urged China to show restraint. “But I’m sure it’ll work out. I hope it works out for everybody, including China, by the way. I hope it works out for everybody.”

Trump went on to call the bloody clashes “a very tricky situation.”

“I hope it works out peacefully,” he said. “I hope nobody gets hurt. I hope nobody gets killed.”

Some of Trump’s reluctance to take on Beijing seems linked to his “America First” belief that the United States should not be a global “policeman,” as he has put it. The president also has admired the breadth of power wielded by autocrats and rarely challenges them in public over human rights abuses.

In the case of Hong Kong, Trump’s reaction may also be colored by his failure to secure a trade deal with China and concerns about the U.S. economy.

Trump accuses Beijing of balking and backsliding in trade negotiations, which remain at an impasse despite Trump’s confidence earlier this year that his personal bond with Xi would pay off with a beneficial trade pact.

Trump’s comments Tuesday about Hong Kong coincided with a potentially embarrassing about-face on tariffs Trump had pledged to impose next month. The White House said it would delay the penalties on Chinese imports of cellphones, laptop computers and other products until Dec. 15.

On Wednesday, as the stock market reeled, Trump claimed in a tweet that the United States is “winning, big time, against China.”

He blamed the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy, and not his own trade agenda, for any economic fallout. “China is not our problem, though Hong Kong is not helping. Our problem is with the Fed. Raised too much & too fast. Now too slow to cut.”

Asked Wednesday about criticism that Trump is pulling back from the traditional American role as a global defender of freedom, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross called the Hong Kong standoff “an internal matter.”

CNBC host Joe Kernen pressed Ross about whether deadlocked trade negotiations are “making it harder for us to do, to lead, in a way that we would have in the past.”

“I don’t know that we would have done anything different in the past,” Ross replied. “What would we do, invade Hong Kong?”

Trump adopted a similarly nonconfrontational stance against Saudi Arabia after the killing of dissident columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the detention of womens’ rights activists, and against Russia for its continued detention of Ukrainian ships and sailors.

He initially resisted blaming Moscow for poisoning an ex-spy on British soil, writing off the 2018 attack as an unpleasant but remote event, even as close ally Britain appealed for solidarity from Washington. Trump later sided forcefully with Britain and imposed sanctions, but his first instinct to remain at arm’s length alarmed British leaders and members of Congress of both parties.

Trump fails to see the ripple effect of a Chinese crackdown on Hong Kong or how Beijing would leverage license from the United States to pursue it, said Evelyn Farkas, a former senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration.

“He doesn’t understand world history or the dynamics at work here, and he’s probably not very interested,” said Farkas, now a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “He was only made interested by the criticism of his silence.”

Retired Gen. Jack Keane, a Fox News analyst and Trump favorite, said the White House is failing to stand up for fundamental values.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the president and his team hasn’t spoken up very loudly in sympathy for the protesters,” Keane said Tuesday on Fox Business.

Trump’s tone stood in contrast with more assertive statements from the State Department, which urged Beijing to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms.

“We condemn violence and urge all sides to exercise restraint, but remain staunch in our support for freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in Hong Kong,” the State Department said.

The White House did not issue a formal statement about the rising unrest this week, and did not include Hong Kong among topics Trump discussed Monday in a phone call with new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Hong Kong is a former British colony. The degree of autonomy accorded to Hong Kong when Britain negotiated terms of the territory’s 1997 handover to China underlies the current crisis.

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, was in Britain this week. He did not publicly raise the Hong Kong issue. And if Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took the Chinese government to task during a hastily-arranged meeting in New York on Tuesday with China’s top diplomat, both governments kept quiet about it.

“Director Yang Jiechi and Secretary Michael R. Pompeo had an extended exchange of views on U.S.-China relations,” a statement from State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus read in its entirety.

A senior administration official noted that Trump has previously said Hong Kong demonstrators are “looking for democracy and I think most people want democracy.”

“We urge all sides to remain calm, safe, and peaceful,” said the official, who requested anonymity in keeping with diplomatic custom.

“Freedoms of expression and assembly are core values that we share with the people of Hong Kong and these freedoms should be protected. The United States firmly rejects the notion that we are sponsoring or inciting the demonstrations.”

Trump and his foreign affairs bureaucracy appeared to be moving in “different orbits,” said Richard Bush, a China expert at the Brookings Institution.

“What the State Department has said is consistent with what they say in any such situation,” he said. “Trump doesn’t appear to think that such disturbances are any business of the United States. He places his emphasis on his personal relationship with Xi Jinping, for whom Hong Kong is a serious challenge.”

Lawmakers were quick to denounce China this week, and many Republicans went much farther than Trump. A Chinese government spokeswoman had criticized U.S. lawmakers for meddling, and accused them of stirring up the protests.

“Images of Beijing-backed forces brutalizing civilians speak for themselves. Millions of Hong Kongers protesting the Chinese Communist Party’s encroachment know the truth about exactly who is responsible for ‘inciting’ chaos. The rest of the world knows too,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tweeted Wednesday.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) appealed to Trump.

“The Administration must make clear to Beijing that any crackdown in Hong Kong will have profound consequences for China, including imposition of US sanctions, which was included in my amendment that passed the Senate as part of the National Defense Authorization Act,” he wrote.

But an executive branch rebuke carries far more weight than criticism from Congress, and greater potential for risk. China could flout a more explicit warning from Trump, leaving him looking weak, or could use a confrontation with Trump over Hong Kong as a reason to crater a trade deal.

Frank Gaffney, a conservative commentator and anti-Muslim activist who has been supportive of Trump, chided the president in a radio message Wednesday. Gaffney, a longtime China hawk, lamented that Trump is not joining the fray.

“Clearly, the President is tiptoeing through a minefield,” Gaffney said, before warning that Trump will be judged harshly if he does not draw a clear line against tyranny.

“Mr. Trump will be widely blamed if he declined to deter such repression by establishing beforehand that it will entail high costs for China,” Gaffney said. “Mr. President: Do that now.”

John Hudson and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.