I give him credit for signing. He had a good reason not to, after all: China’s anger was perfectly predictable, and that anger is destined to imperil the trade deal that Trump badly wants in order to head off economic trouble before the election. Plus, if he was looking for an excuse to say that the U.S. doesn’t need to intervene, he could have pointed to the recent local elections in HK as proof that the democracy movement is doing just fine on its own.
The margins in Congress doubtless had more to do with his decision than deep sympathy for the protesters. The president is … not sentimental about popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes, after all. But the two Hong Kong bills passed almost unanimously in the House and Senate, making a veto override inevitable. Normally presidents are loath to see their veto overridden since it makes them look weak but I thought Trump might prefer it in this case. For one thing, vetoing the bills would let him show Beijing that he tried to stop the legislation and therefore they shouldn’t hold it against him in trade negotiations. For another, the typical fear that presidents feel about having their veto overridden, that it signals they’ve lost control of their party in Congress, is absurd in Trump’s case. House Republicans have spent the past two months doggedly defending him on impeachment and Senate Republicans are destined to vote overwhelmingly to acquit him a month or two from now. He may not lose a single Republican vote in either chamber, Mitt Romney included. He’s not losing control of the party, certainly not on any domestic issue.
Congressional Republicans do tend to go their own way on foreign policy now and then, though. Presumably Trump faced the fact that these bills were destined to become law, reminded himself that standing up to China makes everyone in the party happy, and decided to grab a little extra goodwill with democracy-promoters in his party like Romney and Marco Rubio by signing.
He was politic in his statement afterward, stressing that he’s not trying to be antagonistic towards Xi Jinping:
“I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China, and the people of Hong Kong,” Trump said in a statement. “They are being enacted in the hope that leaders and representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences leading to long term peace and prosperity for all.”
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, S. 1838 (116), would require the secretary of state to certify at least once a year whether Hong Kong continues to have enough control over its own affairs to warrant maintaining its special trade status under U.S. law.
It would also empower the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Hong Kong or Chinese officials who take actions that violate human rights.
It wasn’t just his emphasis on “respect” for Xi that signaled conciliation. Last week on Fox News he sounded reluctant to sign the bills, saying that he stands with Hong Kong but also with President Xi. Would his respectful tone maybe soften Chinese reaction to his decision to sign the bills?
“We are officially telling the U.S. and the handful of opposition politicians in Hong Kong who follow America’s lead to not underestimate our determination to protect Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, don’t underestimate our belief to protect the ‘one country, two systems policy’ and don’t underestimate our capabilities and strategies in protecting our country’s sovereignty, safety, growth and rights,” the office said, according to a CNBC translation of an online-Chinese language statement…
“This so-called bill will only make the Chinese people, including our compatriots in Hong Kong, further understand the sinister intentions and hegemonic nature of the United States. It will only make the Chinese people more united and make the American plot doomed to fail,” China’s foreign ministry said in an online Chinese-language statement Thursday, according to a CNBC translation.
The foreign ministry took to ranting about it on Twitter as well, accusing the U.S. of supporting “violent criminals” by backing the protesters and warning, “We urge US to not continue going down the wrong path, otherwise China will take countermeasures, & US must bear all consequences.” Remember that Trump reportedly promised Xi during a phone call in June that he wouldn’t speak up about Hong Kong’s demonstrations, a concession to maintaining good relations during trade talks. Now here he is signing Congress’s sanctions measures. It’s not just an affront to China, it’s a broken promise.
And so we come to the big question. Is Trump actually going to enforce these bills or is he planning to stick them in a drawer, as he did once before after Russia sanctions passed with bipartisan support in Congress, and trust that Republicans in the House and Senate will keep their mouths shut about it out of party loyalty? Early signs don’t look great!
Today, I have signed into law S. 1838, the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019” (the “Act”). The Act reaffirms and amends the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, specifies United States policy towards Hong Kong, and directs assessment of the political developments in Hong Kong. Certain provisions of the Act would interfere with the exercise of the President’s constitutional authority to state the foreign policy of the United States. My Administration will treat each of the provisions of the Act consistently with the President’s constitutional authorities with respect to foreign relations.
Schumer already sees a fight over enforcement coming:
President Trump: Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act overwhelmingly.
Decency, humanity, and the rule of law compel you to enforce it.
Stop playing games.
We cannot afford for you to be soft on the Chinese Communist Party. https://t.co/NAiJHdbifm
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) November 28, 2019
The Times offers an in-between possibility, in which Trump “could try to slow walk such sanctions — and might even use the threat of imposing them as a cudgel against China in trade negotiations.” China offering the U.S. more favorable terms on a trade deal in return for America agreeing to look the other way on future human-rights abuses in Hong Kong would be an agonizing choice for many Republicans in Congress. But not for the president.
I’ll leave you with this clip from a “thanksgiving” rally last night in Hong Kong after news broke that Trump had signed the legislation. Lotta American flags on view. China now has to think twice about getting aggressive with them — assuming Trump really does intend to enforce the sanctions.