Trump ‘pleaded’ with China’s Xi Jinping to help him win 2020 election, John Bolton says in new book

Robert Delaney

US President Donald Trump sought help from Chinese leader Xi Jinping to win the upcoming 2020 election by asking his counterpart to boost imports of American agricultural products, according to a forthcoming book by former national security adviser John Bolton.

In a meeting with Xi during last year’s G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, “Trump … stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming US presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability and pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win”, Bolton wrote.

The excerpt of Bolton’s book, The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, was published by The Wall Street Journal under the former Trump administration official’s byline.

The US Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Bolton on Tuesday, seeking to stop publication on the grounds that it violates a non-disclosure agreement he signed before assuming his post in 2018.

“[Trump] stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome,” Bolton wrote. “I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.

“Trump’s conversations with Xi reflected not only the incoherence in his trade policy but also the confluence in Trump’s mind of his own political interests and US national interests.

“Trump commingled the personal and the national not just on trade questions but across the whole field of national security.”

Bolton’s revelations are damaging to a president who has touted his skills as a tough negotiator and campaigned in recent months on his hardline stance toward Beijing, analysts said.

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“This may undermine one of the strong points of Trump’s campaign and his critiques of China over the past few months, which have been an effective approach,” said Charles Franklin, a law and public policy professor at Marquette Law School in Wisconsin and director of the school’s polling operation.

“In the middle of a campaign, plenty of people on the Democratic side are probably cutting commercials today.”

In an indication of Trump’s emphasis on exports to China to the exclusion of other bilateral matters, he and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer have recently lauded Beijing for increasing its purchases of US soybeans and other crops.

Pro-democracy protesters light up their mobile phones at a memorial on Monday for a protester who fell to his death during the protests last year. Photo: ZUMA Wire via dpa

Earlier this month, Trump suggested that his trade deal with China was intact, pointing out in a White House press briefing that the country was “buying a lot from us, and in that way I respect, and getting along with China would be a good thing”.

Bolton assailed his former boss on his handling of other matters in the bilateral relationship.

On the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, Bolton alleges that when Trump was informed about “some 1.5 million people” demonstrating on June 12, 2019, the president said: “I don’t want to get involved … We have human rights problems too.”

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“I hoped Trump would see these Hong Kong developments as giving him leverage over China,” he wrote. “That same month, on the 30th anniversary of China’s massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Trump refused to issue a White House statement.”

Instead, according to Bolton, Trump said: “Who cares about it? I’m trying to make a deal.”

Bolton also wrote that Trump asked why the US was sanctioning China over its treatment of Uygurs. China suspects Uygurs, who are predominantly Muslim and culturally and ethnically distinct from the majority Han Chinese population, of harbouring separatist tendencies. In recent years, China has dramatically escalated its campaign against them by detaining more than 1 million people in internment camps and prisons, which it calls vocational training centres.

“At the opening dinner of the Osaka G20 meeting, with only interpreters present, Xi explained to Trump why he was basically building concentration camps in Xinjiang,” Bolton wrote. “According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which he thought was exactly the right thing to do.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the book’s revelations, although earlier on Wednesday White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany denounced Bolton for writing it.

“Bolton should know all too well that it’s unacceptable to have highly classified information from the government of the United States in a book that will be published. It’s unacceptable,” she said in a regular White House press briefing. “It has not gone through the review process, and that’s where we currently stand.”

Bolton also criticised Trump for leniency towards Chinese telecoms equipment makers Huawei Technologies and ZTE, which was done “not as a policy issue to be resolved but as an opportunity to make personal gestures to Xi”.

Trump, Bolton said, offered to reverse criminal prosecution of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou “if it would help in the trade deal – which, of course, was primarily about getting Trump re-elected in 2020”.

In 2018, Trump intervened in US Commerce Department sanctions against ZTE, all but saving the second largest telecoms equipment maker in China from collapse. The agency imposed a seven-year ban on US companies doing business with the tech company after the US government determined that ZTE violated sanctions against Iran and North Korea.

After Trump’s intervention, which he called a favour to Xi, the ban was lifted and ZTE was allowed resume business with US companies after agreeing to a US$1.4 billion fine.

Why Donald Trump and John Bolton parted ways

How Bolton’s revelations might affect Trump’s re-election chances remain to be seen.

Trump has repeatedly shown an ability to distract, undercut and deflect criticism, analysts said. As a result, any more lasting impact will depend on how widely Bolton’s comments are discussed and circulated on social media, cable news and beyond some five months before the election, affecting the consciousness of ordinary voters, they said.

“For people who live and breathe politics … it seems like a pretty major story from a pretty significant insider,” Franklin said.

“But if I do a poll in two weeks and ask people if they know about his negotiations with China, the question is whether 20 per cent or 80 per cent will say they heard something about it. Some of the things that occupy professional political watchers don’t spread out.”

The book is set to be released on June 23, and Bolton has already taped an interview with ABC News to promote it.

The lawsuit accuses the former official of breaking his contract by backing out of the National Security Council’s vetting process to determine whether the book contains classified information that needs to be redacted or edited.

The NSC “quickly identified significant quantities of classified information that it asked defendant to remove”, the complaint said.

“An iterative process between NSC staff and defendant then began, as required by the binding agreements he signed, with changes to the book and other information being securely passed between defendant and NSC staff. Soon, though, defendant apparently became dissatisfied at the pace of NSC’s review.”

It alleges that instead of waiting for the process to conclude, Bolton “decided to take matters into his own hands”.

On June 7, “without defendant giving any prior notice to the NSC, press reports revealed that defendant and his publisher had resolved to release the book on June 23, without completing the prepublication review process,” the lawsuit said.

Additional reporting by Mark Magnier, Jodi Xu Klein, Associated Press and Business Insider

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