Yet as Chinese officials increasingly hint at a potentially violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, Trump has remained largely silent.

The bifurcated approach is just the latest example of what former U.S. officials and analysts say is Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy, as well as his comfort with authoritarian rule. Even though the president’s own aides are sending a more forceful message on situations like the Hong Kong protests, they add, it’s a message that will inevitably get lost amid Trump’s comments — or lack thereof.

“Trump is telling [Chinese President] Xi Jinping very clearly: ‘Do whatever you want in Hong Kong. All I care about is a trade deal,’” argued Michael Fuchs, a former State Department official under the Democratic administration of Barack Obama. What Trump aides say means “nothing when the president is making his own position very clear again and again and again.”

Trump’s defenders argue his comments are either misinterpreted or not considered in full.