War Stories

Trump’s China-Bashing Press Conference Was a Dud

The president ignored the crisis in Minnesota in favor of ineffectual rambling.

Close-up of Trump speaking with Mike Pompeo seen behind him.
President Donald Trump, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, holds a press conference on China on Friday in the Rose Garden of the White House. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

As protests raged over a police killing in Minnesota, which prompted shootings at marchers in Louisville, all of which President Trump inflamed by tweeting a phrase coined by racist, segregationist officeholders in the late 1960s (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”)—amid all this, Trump walked up to a podium in the Rose Garden, yelled about China, announced he was cutting off relations with the World Health Organization, then walked away, without taking any questions.

It was not a good show for the self-proclaimed leader of the free world to put on, especially since much of his diatribe against China concerned its crackdown on human rights in Hong Kong.

Earlier in the day, after state police in Minnesota arrested a black Latino CNN reporter in the middle of his broadcast from the scene of the violence, Julia Ioffe, an American journalist who grew up in Russia, tweeted Московские друзья, смотрите, у нас теперь как у вас!—which means “Moscow friends, look, we now have what you have!”* This is an exaggeration—in Moscow, the government doesn’t merely arrest reporters, it murders them—but, again, the rest of the world, sizing up America at the moment, might not draw such distinctions.

In any case, most presidents would have taken advantage of a televised press conference to draw such distinctions. Trump could have mourned the life of George Floyd, the black man killed by police. He could have applauded the county attorney for charging the cop with third-degree murder. He could have noted Attorney General William Barr’s announcement of a civil rights probe into Floyd’s death.

But Trump wasn’t in the mood for conciliation; he wasn’t in the mood for calming the nation or displaying leadership.

Even his rant at China, much of it justifiable, had no discernible impact. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, which Trump often reads as the leading economic indicator, had been sliding downward, in anticipation of his afternoon news conference about China, as investors feared he might exacerbate tensions with Beijing. At 3 p.m. EDT, after the news conference ended, the Dow spiked upward, as investors were relieved that he wouldn’t be taking serious action after all.

Trump cataloged the many ways the Chinese Communist Party has damaged the U.S. economy over the years—its unfair trade practices, its theft of intellectual property, and so forth. But the same list could have been recited three years ago, and despite Trump’s occasional harsh rhetoric against China, very little has changed. (He blamed “previous presidents” for their passivity and boasted that only he had done something about the problem, but in fact he’s done little.) More than that, he skipped over the fact that he has many times praised Chinese President Xi Jinping as a friend and strong leader. Even in the first several weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump praised Xi for his prompt actions—even while others recognized that he had covered up the seriousness of the virus and the extent of its spread.

Trump particularly (and rightly) blasted Beijing for its recent crackdown on Hong Kong, in violation of agreements to let the city retain a degree of autonomy. But he spelled out no new policy to deal with the new situation, except that he would suspend the special treatment and economic benefits that the U.S. has bestowed on Hong Kong in recognition of its independence. How that helps the people of Hong Kong is unclear.

Finally, Trump announced that he was pulling the U.S. out of the World Health Organization, a step he has been considering for some time. He railed against WHO’s failure to investigate the roots of the coronavirus, for fear of offending the Chinese government—which, like other big countries, funds much of the organization’s budget. WHO deserves much criticism; pressure should be mounted to change its practices. But Trump said he would shift the U.S. share of its budget to other international health organizations doing good work—but there really are no such organizations with WHO’s scope, expertise, or global reach. As Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, put it, paraphrasing Donald Rumsfeld line about going to war, “You don’t fight a pandemic with the W.H.O. you want; you fight a pandemic with the W.H.O. you have.”

Not only that, but by leaving WHO, Trump only boosts China’s influence within the organization.

This is what Trump has always done when it comes to international accords. The Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Open Skies Treaty—if he doesn’t like the way something is done, or the fact that someone he doesn’t like negotiated it, he doesn’t try to make it better; he just leaves.

He has made the United States a less compelling power—less relevant, less influential, less appealing—in the many crises the world faces at the moment. And, as the events in Minnesota highlight the primal tragedy of our own history as a nation, rather than try to coax some unity out of the remarkably widespread condemnation of the murder, Trump douses the incident with rhetorical flames, then says nothing more about it while the whole world watches.

Trump has forfeited the high ground in a looming conflict with China—and, on the home front, he has shrugged his shoulders at the sort of moral obligations to which any other president would at least pay lip service. He is not interested in such obligations. He doesn’t even wear a mask. His true face is all too clear.

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Correction, May 29, 2020: This article originally misstated that a CNN crew had been arrested by National Guardsmen. They were arrested by state police.