Trump's Plea to China on Biden: Sly Move or Reckless One?

Trump's Plea to China on Biden: Sly Move or Reckless One?
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Trump's Plea to China on Biden: Sly Move or Reckless One?
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
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President Trump congratulated the People’s Republic of China on its 70th anniversary on Tuesday. He asked the communist nation to help dig up dirt on a political rival on Thursday.

As he prepared to board Marine One, Trump floated the idea of China starting an investigation into the business dealings of Joe and Hunter Biden. In the context of impeachment fervor among Democrats over Trump’s Biden-related conservations with Ukraine’s president, Trump’s remarks seemed reckless to some, although hardly out of character.

The sequence began as the president headed toward his chopper on the South Lawn. From the scrum of reporters came a shouted question about Ukraine.  

"Well, I would think that if they were honest about it, they'd start a major investigation into the Bidens,” Trump replied as the engines on his helicopter whirred in the background. “It's a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens.”

On his own, the president then brought a second country into the conversation.

"Likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine," he said. He added that he had not asked Chinese President Xi Jinping about the matter, but then said it was “certainly something we could start thinking about.”

Was an impromptu Trump simply riffing off a reporter? Was a mocking Trump trying to goad Democrats in general and one political opponent in particular? Was an earnest Trump asking a foreign government to uncover corruption?

Here, the maxim about taking Trump seriously but not literally is of little help. But one thing is certain: The president is not bothered enough by his brewing impeachment to self-moderate. Trump wants dirt, and he doesn’t mind where he finds it.

This was a predictable cause of consternation to the Biden campaign, which quickly put out a statement.

“What Donald Trump just said on the South Lawn of the White House was this election's equivalent of his infamous 'Russia, if you're listening' moment from 2016 — a grotesque choice of lies over truth and self over the country,” wrote Biden Communications Director Kate Bedingfield.

The Trump campaign quickly fired back. “Joe Biden seems incredibly worried that we might get to the bottom of Quid Pro Joe's corruption,” Trump campaign Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told RealClearPolitics. “The facts are clear: Hunter Biden conducted business in Ukraine and China that he had no qualifications for while his father was in charge of diplomacy with these countries. Joe Biden threatened to pull $1 billion in aid to Ukraine unless the prosecutor looking into his son's company was fired. Joe Biden's fledgling campaign is now the last of his worries as his misconduct continues to come to light."  

Clutching at each other’s throats, the two rivals have gone careening through two weeks of news cycles. Biden accuses Trump of abusing his executive power to win an early advantage ahead of 2020, a charge bolstered by the fact that the president tried to enlist his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate the business dealings of Hunter Biden in that country. Trump accuses Biden of allowing his son to leverage lucrative contracts from the family’s position of power in the Obama administration.

The battle may be taking a toll on both. For his part, Trump faces impeachment. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party’s 2020 front-runner has tumbled in the polls.

With the stakes so high, the administration was quick to play defense. Asked whether Trump’s invitation to the Chinese was unconstitutional, a senior administration official told RCP, “Not sure why it would be.” So, was the request calculated? He was exposing hypocrisy, a source close to the White House insisted.

“Democrats and media have no shame coordinating fake attacks on Kavanaugh and Trump,” the Republican source told RCP,” yet suddenly they are aghast that the president ask for people to look into real corruption allegations against Biden.”

The back-and-forth will continue in Washington and culminate in the short term with heated conversations on the Sunday shows. It will not, however, go overlooked in Beijing. Whether Trump was making a call or not, Beijing was definitely listening.

The first thing that Chinese officials will do is dig through their books, predicted Harry J. Kazianis, an expert on China and director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest.

“What the Chinese intelligence service will do is see if they have anything on Joe Biden or the Biden family members, looking to see if there is anything actually there,” he added.

According to the Washington Post, Hunter Biden traveled with his then-vice president father in 2013 to China. The younger Biden helped organize a handshake between his prospective business partner Jonathan Li and the elder Biden. Less than two weeks later, according to the Post, Hunter Biden joined the board of a private-equity fund founded by Li.

If the Chinese find or create dirt from those business dealings, the next thing they could do is name their price. And while Kazianis noted that the most likely scenario is that the Chinese would stand down for fear of offending a future Democratic president, if the Chinese come to the trade-war bargaining table, they would be looking for a detente.

“I would not be shocked if they did come up with something, and it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Trump may reward them with an interim deal until the end of the election and maybe get more aggressive afterward,” he said. “But let’s put it this way, if I was Joe Biden’s son, I’d be a little worried.”

Whatever comes from this overture, it possibly reflects an evolution in the thinking of Trump. The president changes his mind frequently but not on China. He warned that the country was “neither an ally nor a friend” in 2011 when he was making real-estate deals in New York. And he won the White House in 2016 by demanding that the United States no longer “allow China to rape our country.”

But that was before Trump stared down impeachment and before he started pondering his future post-2020. Whatever his thinking, the president has always promised to make deals, and some personal political advantage could be the icing on the cake for one involving international trade.

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