In June 2019, Donald Trump was desperate for a win—and he was willing to endorse Chinese concentration camps to get it.
In the back half of his first term, Trump was feeling pinched. He’d escaped Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation without charges, but a Democratic House was making his life progressively more difficult and he hadn’t had a major political win in months. There were even warning signs for the economy. So when the president met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Japan, he had issues other than human rights on his mind.
According to a forthcoming book by John Bolton, who was then serving as Trump’s national security adviser, Xi explained to Trump why China was building concentration camps for the Uighur minority in the western part of the country. American policy—and simple morality—stood against the repression of the Muslim group, though the Trump administration had held off on imposing sanctions.
But Trump took a different approach, Bolton claims: “According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.” This wasn’t a one-off. Trump had already questioned the need for action to Bolton, and another administration China hawk said Trump had been similarly permissive on a 2017 trip, according to the book.
The president was eager to avoid conflict with Xi because he needed a trade deal with China. Trump made bellicose rhetoric about Chinese trade practices central to his campaign, then promised to make a deal after he took office, but by 2019, he still hadn’t delivered. Now he was in a tough spot. In Bolton’s account, Trump, “pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win” reelection in 2020, asked for China to increase its purchases of American agricultural projects. Xi agreed. (These anecdotes come from an excerpt of the book in The Wall Street Journal, as well as accounts in The New York Times and The Washington Post, both of which obtained copies. The book is due out next week, though the government has sued Bolton in an effort to stop its release.)
Trump’s willingness to prioritize his political fortunes was not limited to this one incident, but rather, Bolton writes, was part of a pattern: “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.”
This is a stunningly blunt conclusion from the man Trump handpicked to advise him on national security—though not one that will come as a great surprise, after Trump was impeached for trying to use American aid to Ukraine to extort assistance for his reelection campaign. Bolton’s account is notable for two reasons. The first is the messenger: Bolton had not only a front-row seat but a seat at the table for the events he recounts, and there is no question about his conservative bona fides. Second, it shows the scale and depth of Trump’s depravity and corruption—even to the point of allegedly encouraging concentration camps for a persecuted minority.
Of course, the American government and United States presidents have accommodated horrifying regimes many times in the past. Notably, Trump was not merely averting his eyes from Chinese human-rights crimes, nor was he ignoring them in order to pursue some other goal of American policy. (On Wednesday, Trump did sign sanctions against China over the mistreatment of Uighurs into law, after the measure almost unanimously passed Congress.) The president, in Bolton’s telling, simply didn’t care—he wanted his trade deal. For Trump, everything revolves around his own interests, political or otherwise. He doesn’t care who gets hurt in other countries, or even in his own country.
Trump has attempted to paint this as “America First”: He’s simply looking out for Americans before he’s looking out for Uighurs. This might be a defensible claim—though still a dubious, zero-sum, reductionist worldview—were it not so clear that the real principle is “Trump 2020 First.” The president has shown very little interest in helping out or representing voters who didn’t vote for him (which is most of them). Bolton didn’t watch Trump beg Xi to plump the American heartland; he watched Trump beg China to boost his own reelection chances. Similarly, a spurious Ukrainian investigation into the Biden family wouldn’t have boosted American interests in any way, while withholding aid to Ukraine harmed U.S. foreign-policy interests, as the Trump administration itself had defined them.
Though Ukraine was the case that got Trump impeached, Bolton argues that Trump committed plenty of other impeachable offenses. He says Trump repeatedly tried to halt criminal investigations that were troublesome to autocrats in China and Turkey. “The pattern looked like obstruction of justice as a way of life,” writes Bolton, who reported the cases to Attorney General William Barr—apparently naively viewing Barr as a defender of the law rather than a zealous henchman of the president.
Though Barr proved no help, Bolton argues in the book that Democrats in the House might have been—and lambastes them for what he views as a dereliction of duty in the course of their impeachment:
These and innumerable other similar conversations with Trump formed a pattern of fundamentally unacceptable behavior that eroded the very legitimacy of the presidency. Had Democratic impeachment advocates not been so obsessed with their Ukraine blitzkrieg in 2019, had they taken the time to inquire more systematically about Trump’s behavior across his entire foreign policy, the impeachment outcome might well have been different.