Trump Just Did It Out in the Open

Facing impeachment over his secret request that Ukraine investigate the Bidens, the president appealed to China to do the same.

Andrew Harnik / AP

Facing impeachment over his request for a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 election, President Donald Trump today called on China to interfere in the 2020 election.

Trump made the remarks on the South Lawn of the White House as he prepared to leave for a speech in Florida. Yesterday, Trump repeatedly dodged the reporter Jeff Mason’s question about what he wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to do about the Biden family, but today he addressed it.

“I would think that if they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer,” Trump said. And then his answer got a lot less simple:

They should investigate the Bidens because how does a company that’s newly formed—and all these companies—and by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.

Unprompted, Trump requested that another foreign power inject itself into the election by investigating a political opponent. The suggestion is even more shocking because of the country involved. Unlike Ukraine, which is largely a client state of Western governments, China has been repeatedly described by Trump as an important rival and even an adversary. (He did, however, raise eyebrows with a tweet this week celebrating the advent of Communist China.)

But just as Trump offered a quid pro quo to Zelensky, China has something to gain by currying favor with Trump. Beijing is embroiled in a trade war with the United States that has throttled the Chinese economy. Talks between the two governments have stalled. “I have a lot of options on China, but if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power,” Trump said a half minute before making the investigation request.

This is not the first time Trump has openly requested that a foreign government intervene. During the 2016 election, he infamously called on Russia to attempt to hack into Hillary Clinton’s computers. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. By contrast, one of the most unusual things about his attempt to strong-arm Ukraine into investigating the Bidens was the White House’s attempt to cover it up.Trump’s remarks today marked a return to form.

Just as Russia is a major intelligence adversary of the United States, China is already engaged in a massive spying operation against the U.S. Trump has been clear-eyed about the scale and cost of Chinese espionage against American companies. Yet, by inviting an investigation into the Bidens, Trump implies that he’s extending a free pass, as he did with Russia three years ago.

The U.S. government does sometimes ask foreign governments for assistance in criminal investigations. But that’s not what’s happening here. Trump isn’t requesting that China (or Ukraine) assist an existing FBI investigation. He’s asking it to open its own investigation, which would hurt a political opponent. And crucially, he’s doing so without ever actually lodging any accusation of criminal behavior.

Trump appears to be referring to business dealings by Hunter Biden, former Vice President Joe Biden’s son. In 2013, Hunter rode to Beijing with his father on Air Force Two. According to some accounts, he conducted business while on the trip. Regardless, it’s clear that Hunter made lots of money in business deals in China, evidently by trading on his famous name. As Sarah Chayes recently wrote in The Atlantic, this is both gross and completely legal.

Even Trump has not made any claim that Hunter or Joe broke any laws. “Nobody has any doubt that they weren’t crooked,” Trump said today. “That was a crooked deal, 100 percent.” This is just bluster. Take such a vague accusation to any police station or prosecutor’s office, and see how fast you get laughed back onto the street. If Trump has a claim of lawbreaking, he should bring it forward. Besides, it’s hypocritical: Trump’s own daughter has business interests in China that benefit from her father’s fame and position.

Why would Trump so brazenly call on an American rival to interfere in the 2020 election, when he’s already in grave danger for calling on a country to interfere in the election? Because he doesn’t learn from his mistakes. Because his goal is not to defeat the impeachment inquiry, but to go around it. Because it worked for him in the 2016 election—and since winning is his paramount value, he’ll do whatever it takes to win in 2020, as well.