President Donald Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for domestic political help to boost his electoral prospects in the midst of the two leaders’ trade war last summer, according to the bombshell account of former national security adviser John Bolton in his forthcoming memoir.
According to an excerpt of the memoir, published in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Bolton alleges that Trump made the plea to help his standing with American farmers during a summit with Xi on the sidelines of the G-20 in Japan, a month after negotiations for a trade deal had stalled.
Xi, according to Bolton, complained to the president of unnamed American politicians who Xi said were wrong to call for a new cold war with China, a slight Trump took to be directed toward Democrats who he agreed were too hostile toward Beijing.
“Trump then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability and pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win,” Bolton wrote. The president “stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome.”
“I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise,” he added.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who was in the meeting, denied the episode ever took place when asked multiple times about Bolton's allegation during a Senate hearing.
But the potentially explosive revelation comes amid a monthslong back-and-forth between Bolton and the White House over the contents of the book. The Department of Justice is suing to prevent the 592-page tome from being published.
And it comes as Republicans seek to portray Trump's presumptive 2020 rival, former vice president Joe Biden, as too soft on China. The two campaigns have traded accusations in dueling campaign ads, fueled by the public debate over how much blame to place on Beijing for the death and economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
The administration has claimed that Bolton’s memoir, which was set to be released next week, contains classified information and could represent a threat to national security. Bolton and his attorney deny that charge, saying that the book went through an arduous pre-publication review with the White House.
Bolton’s accusations about China draw a striking parallel to the events that landed Trump in an impeachment trial earlier this year. Trump was accused of freezing military aid to Ukraine as a means of pressuring the government to conduct potentially politically beneficial investigations involving Trump’s potential political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and was later acquitted of both articles against him.
According to Bolton, who lays out a damning portrait of a commander in chief eager to appease authoritarian leaders, “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 U.S. national interests.”
Furthermore, Bolton claims, "Trump commingled the personal and the national not just on trade questions but across the whole field of national security. I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations."
The president's actions, he later adds, "formed a pattern of fundamentally unacceptable behavior that eroded the very legitimacy of the presidency."
The White House has already begun to mobilize against what are expected to be further bombshell revelations contained in Bolton’s book, with the president and his allies already beginning to question Bolton’s trustworthiness and his motivations while pointing out that the former national security adviser declined to voluntarily testify in Trump’s impeachment trial even as he criticized congressional Democrats’ impeachment approach.
Asked about the book on Wednesday, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters “the book is full of classified information, which is inexcusable."
Bolton's accusations also threaten to explode a major Trump narrative about Biden, whose statements about China have featured in campaign ads widely amplified by the president's allies.
But despite Trump’s claims that “Nobody … has been WEAKER on China” than Biden and accusation that “He gave them EVERYTHING they wanted, including rip-off Trade Deals,” Bolton portrays Trump in a similar light, writing that Lighthizer feared what the president would give away to China in one-on-one trade talks.
Bolton, a China hawk, claims that Trump repeatedly sought to appease Xi, at one point calling Xi "the greatest leader in Chinese history" after he agreed to resume trade talks that included U.S. agricultural purposes.
In other anecdotes, Bolton writes of Trump’s willingness to overlook Chinese human rights issues, suggesting that Trump wanted to avoid angering Xi and at one point arguing that “we have human-rights problems too.”
Last summer when unrest was mounting in Hong Kong over an attempt by Beijing to crack down on the semi-autonomous territory, Trump acknowledged “that’s a big deal” but added “I don’t want to get involved,” according to Bolton.
And when resisting putting out a White House statement on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the president misstated the timing of the event while responding: “Who cares about it? I’m trying to make a deal. I don’t want anything.”
Bolton also writes that Trump questioned why the U.S. was mulling sanctions on China over its treatment of Uighur Muslims, a minority ethnic group in parts of northwest China who Beijing has been accused of placing in modern day concentration camps.
At the G-20 Summit in Osaka, Bolton claims that during a meeting between Trump and Xi with only interpreters present, according to the U.S. interpreter, “Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”
Within hours of the excerpt of Bolton's book publishing, the White House announced that Trump had signed into law legislation condemning treatment of the Uighurs and calling for the United States to sanction Chinese officials and entities over their detention and torture.
Democrats reacted with fury to the revelations detailed in Bolton's excerpt and in news accounts. California Rep. Adam Schiff, who led the House impeachment inquiry, tweeted, "Bolton’s staff were asked to testify before the House to Trump’s abuses, and did. They had a lot to lose and showed real courage. When Bolton was asked, he refused, and said he’d sue if subpoenaed. Instead, he saved it for a book. Bolton may be an author, but he’s no patriot."
And New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, used the occasion to swipe at his colleagues across the aisle, who declined to subpoena Bolton's testimony during the president's impeachment trial. "The revelations in Bolton’s book make Senate Republicans’ craven actions on impeachment look even worse—and history will judge them for it," he tweeted.
Doug Palmer contributed to this report.