trade

Trump throws an impeachment stink bomb into China trade talks

Donald Trump

President Donald Trump just tossed his most pressing economic issue into the morass of impeachment politics.

Trump’s suggestion Thursday that Beijing should investigate a political rival, moments after threatening America’s “tremendous power” in the ongoing trade talks with China, exposes his long-running negotiations with the world’s No. 2 economy to new scrutiny and could cast a political shadow over the results.

Trump’s characteristic conflation of issues comes just a week before Chinese officials are due to arrive for a 13th round of trade talks in Washington.

Even if Trump’s comments don’t shift the dynamic at the negotiating table, people who have been tracking every twist in the trade talks say the president’s statement will cloud how any outcome from the talks is received by Trump’s Democratic opponents and other U.S. policymakers.

“This is a gift to anyone who doesn’t like the deal,” said Derek Scissors, a China scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has advised the administration on China issues.

“It will be very easy to say, the U.S. could have gotten more but the president wanted China to investigate Biden and gave up something that would have helped American workers,” he added.

Trump on Thursday broadened the controversy over his request that Ukraine open a corruption investigation into the Bidens — already the focus of an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats — by bringing up China, unprompted, as another country that should look into the matter.

“Well, I would think that if they were honest about it, they would start a major investigation into the Bidens. It's a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens,” the president told reporters about Ukraine on the South Lawn of the White House. “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 and his allies have claimed that Hunter Biden convinced China to put $1.5 billion in a fund for an investment firm he had a stake in when his father, Joe Biden, was in office. Lawyers for the former vice president's son have denied those assertions.

The statement came moments after Trump said the U.S. has “a lot of options” to get Beijing to bend to its will in the trade talks.

“If they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power,” he said.

By late Thursday, the controversy had opened a new front in the impeachment inquiry and spurred rebukes from Democrats across the board.

The top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), called on the White House, Treasury Department and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to explain whether the Biden issue had actually been raised in the context of trade talks and to produce any relevant documents.

“Linking trade negotiations to Donald Trump’s wide-ranging effort to fabricate foreign accusations against political rivals is a complete abuse of the powers of the president,” said Wyden in a statement. “I am increasingly concerned that he is using the leverage of trade threats for personal gain, just as he did with foreign aid to Ukraine. The Chinese communist government has a long record of concocting false evidence to convict political enemies, and I have no doubt they would happily fabricate evidence against the American president’s enemies in exchange for trade concessions from the United States.“

For its part, China is unlikely to heed Trump’s call for the purpose of getting the U.S. to ease up on tariffs and other trade demands, said experts with experience in the country.

“I don’t think China seriously entertains this a quid pro quo in terms of the trade negotiations,” said Jude Blanchette, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He said Beijing would be “extraordinarily stupid” to act on Trump’s suggestion in order to secure a deal, considering the backlash it could get from Congress and hard-liners in Trump’s inner circle.

“I don’t think they’re treating every utterance of the president to be followed in tandem by an action,” Blanchette said.

The Chinese embassy didn’t respond to a request for comment on Trump’s request and its relationship to the trade talks.

Trump has made China a major focus of his presidency, vowing to address trade practices blamed for wholesale theft of U.S. technology and a ballooning U.S. trade deficit.

Even as Beijing has balked at U.S. demands that would force major changes to its laws and policies, the two sides could be working toward a preliminary deal aimed at easing global economic tensions that have resulted from a tariff battle that has hit hundreds of billions of dollars of trade.

A potential mini deal with China already faces the prospect of being the subject of intense political blowback not only from Trump’s Democratic challengers, but also a growing majority of Congress that has made a bipartisan call to crack down on Beijing.

“The Chinese have no wish or intention to become involved in partisan politics in the United States,” said Craig Allen, president of the US-China Business Council. “While they will pursue their own interests, they will do so blind to the partisan implications.”

Michael Pillsbury, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said there is no equivalent word in Mandarin to “impeachment.”

Beijing still has difficulty trying to analyze the separation of powers in the U.S. political system, said Pillsbury, an outside adviser to the Trump administration who was involved in U.S.-China policy in the Nixon era.

“For a long time [China] didn’t understand Watergate. They didn’t believe it was important,” he said. “Ultimately, they began to see it was a major issue.”

But he said he didn’t expect the president’s latest statement to upend the negotiations. “I fully expect them to show up,” Pillsbury said.