Democrats are seizing on former national security adviser John Bolton’s new book to shield their presumptive nominee Joe Biden from attacks on his China record and turn the issue around on President Trump.
Even polls that show Trump trailing Biden in the presidential race often find pluralities prefer the president to confront China, second only to his advantage on jobs and the economy. The Trump campaign has seen data that suggests their “Beijing Biden” jibes could be effective in the fall campaign. The former vice president’s supporters would like to blunt those charges and sense Bolton has given them some new ammunition.
“Today, we learned from John Bolton, the President’s former national security advisor, that President Trump sold out the American people to protect his political future,” Biden said in a statement as details from Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir were first being widely reported. “He reportedly directly asked Xi Jinping, China’s leader, to help him get re-elected.”
Biden accused Trump of trading “away our most cherished democratic values for the empty promise of a flimsy trade deal that bailed him out of his disastrous tariff war that did so much damage to our farmers, manufacturers, and consumers.”
He talked about Trump and China in terms Democrats once reserved for the Russia collusion charges.
“In exchange, [Trump] condoned interning more than one million Uighurs in concentration camps,” Biden added. “It’s no wonder that this week we’ve also seen reporting that China wants four more years of Donald Trump as president, because he has so weakened the United States.”
“It fits. Right after Trump signed the deal, I was critical of him and … said it seems that he sold out for a bunch of soybeans, which our farmers will never see purchased,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, told Politico. “Bolton indicates that that was true. And the farmers aren’t even getting helped. Xi played him like a fool.”
Republicans have expressed skepticism about Bolton’s account, with top Trump trade advisers Peter Navarro calling it “revenge porn” by a “warlord” and Robert Lighthizer flatly contradicting claims that the president begged Xi for concessions in order to win reelection. Trump has accused Bolton of lying and breaking the law.
“The only people who will buy the claims in Bolton’s book are the people who already hate Trump,” said conservative strategist Chris Barron. “Ironically, the people most likely to buy his claims happen to be the same people who spent two decades telling us Bolton is a dangerous liar who can’t be trusted. Welcome to 2020.”
Bolton’s ouster from the Trump administration — there are conflicting accounts about whether he resigned or was fired — remains a sore point. He also expressed skepticism about Trump’s diplomatic overtures to hostile foreign countries throughout his book.
Democrats have historically panned Bolton as an unreliable narrator who made faulty claims about U.S. intelligence in the run-up to the war in Iraq. They blocked his Senate confirmation to the United Nations ambassadorship under George W. Bush, forcing him to serve temporarily as a recess appointment. Democrats remain disappointed with Bolton for not coming out with these claims during impeachment hearings against Trump earlier this year.
Still, some find Bolton’s story plausible because Trump is known to flatter leaders with whom he is trying to negotiate and has a history of unsentimental remarks about authoritarian governments, including a notorious 1990 Playboy interview in which he appeared to praise the “vicious” yet “horrible” Chinese response to Tiananmen Square. “That shows you the power of strength,” he said.
Trump was elected in part for his willingness to confront China. As his positions on other issues changed, he has remained consistent for many years, even before becoming president, in warning about unfair Chinese trade practices, currency manipulation, and intellectual property theft. He has repeatedly hit Biden for supporting liberalized trade with China and calling coronavirus travel restrictions on the communist country xenophobic.
“Beijing Biden” is expected to be a major part of the general election campaign. Now, Democrats will retort “Bolton’s book,” though the impact is unclear.
“It’ll be fodder for Biden’s TV ads and for the Never Trumpers, and that’s about it,” said a Washington, D.C.-based Republican operative. “I don’t think it’s a game changer. It won’t have any impact on the people who support Trump at all.”
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