WASHINGTON — As national security officials and some trade advisers in the Trump administration tried crafting get-tough-on-China policies to address what they viewed as America’s greatest foreign policy challenge, they ran into opposition from an unexpected quarter.
President Trump himself was undermining their work.
That has been the underlying tension of the last three and a half years, laid out in blunt language in the new memoir by John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser. The book supports what administration officials have said in interviews and private discussions since 2017, and what, in many ways, had been out in the open in Mr. Trump’s fawning statements about China’s authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping, many made on Twitter.
Taken together, the accounts reveal that there has been no coherent China policy, despite efforts early in the administration by senior aides to frame foreign policy around what they labeled “great power competition,” outlined in their own national security strategy document.
Administration players on China have been divided by factional feuding and irreconcilable policy goals, with security hawks and religious freedom crusaders butting heads with Wall Street advocates and free traders.
Overseeing it all has been a president whose main aim with China has been to secure a trade deal — using overt pleas to Chinese leaders — that would help him get re-elected, according to the accounts.
Mr. Trump, who has shown little interest in human rights and has an affinity for dictators, had no qualms about negotiating openly on those terms with Mr. Xi and ignoring other issues. He even told Mr. Xi repeatedly to continue building internment camps that Chinese officials have used to detain more than one million Muslims — “which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do,” Mr. Bolton wrote.
Although Mr. Trump is known to be a transactional president, Mr. Bolton’s unsparing account reveals transgressions that not only break norms, but also could increase the risks to U.S. national security: Mr. Trump intervening to end sanctions against a Chinese technology company as a favor to Mr. Xi; offering to end a Justice Department case against a Huawei executive in exchange for trade concessions; and “pleading with Xi to ensure” China would make American farm product purchases to help Mr. Trump win re-election, as Mr. Bolton put it.
“Make sure I win,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Xi, according to unredacted pages seen by Vanity Fair.
Throughout the winter and the spring, as the new coronavirus spread from its initial outbreak zone in China across the globe, Mr. Trump kept praising Mr. Xi in an effort to preserve a trade deal signed in January. The virus has now infected more than two million Americans and killed about 120,000.
The details in Mr. Bolton’s book provide ample ammunition for Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential candidate, to rebut efforts by the Trump campaign to paint the former vice president as soft on China. And Senate Republicans who are orienting their own re-election efforts around the same message against Democratic challengers will run into similar pitfalls.
“Bolton’s account will be difficult for Republicans to dismiss,” said Susan Shirk, the chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego. “It helps explain why the administration has actually accomplished so little in its pressure campaign against China, namely that it was undercut by President Trump himself, who fawned over Xi Jinping in order to get personal political and perhaps commercial favors from the Chinese leader.”
“Chinese leaders have learned how to manipulate autocrats in other countries who are just out for themselves, and they applied these lessons to the way they manipulated President Trump,” she added.
Mr. Trump denounced Mr. Bolton’s book on Thursday, saying on Twitter that it was a “compilation of lies and made up stories, all intended to make me look bad.”
Mr. Bolton resigned last September over major policy clashes with Mr. Trump, though the president has said that he fired Mr. Bolton, a contention he repeated in the tweet: “Just trying to get even for firing him like the sick puppy he is!”
Mr. Trump also asserted a tough tone toward China on Thursday, negating a claim made the previous day by Robert E. Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, that Washington would not seek to “decouple” the American economy from China’s. “That was a policy option years ago, but I don’t think it’s a policy or reasonable policy option at this point,” Mr. Lighthizer told the House Ways and Means Committee.
In a tweet, though, Mr. Trump said that Mr. Lighthizer was mistaken, and that “the U.S. certainly does maintain a policy option, under various conditions, of a complete decoupling from China.”
Mr. Trump did not define “decoupling,” and economists say a significant separation would be difficult.
Critics of the administration’s actions on China say hawkish officials have overreached or adopted misguided measures — for example, pushing a trade war that has resulted in mainly American companies paying about $55 billion in tariffs and caused suffering among farmers, or starting tit-for-tat punishments against Chinese media organizations that have resulted in the expulsions of American reporters from China.
In a charitable sense, Mr. Trump’s willingness to cut deals with Mr. Xi can be seen as a corrective to that. But Mr. Trump’s approach is rooted only in his concerns about his political future and not in any understanding of foreign policy or American interests, according to Mr. Bolton.
“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,” Mr. Bolton wrote, according to excerpted text. “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 re-election calculations.”
The administration has generally been divided between those who see China as a national security threat and those who see it as a business opportunity. Mr. Bolton was in the former camp, as are Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser; and Peter Navarro, a White House trader adviser. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whom Mr. Bolton calls a “panda hugger,” and Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, have advocated moderate policies to preserve commercial ties.
Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and a senior adviser, also has. In December 2018, when Mr. Trump told Mr. Xi and other Chinese officials at a dinner in Buenos Aires that Mr. Kushner would take part in trade negotiations, “all the Chinese perked up and smiled,” Mr. Bolton wrote.
Though Mr. Navarro is aligned ideologically with Mr. Bolton on China, he defended Mr. Trump’s policies in a talk with reporters on Thursday.
“My take on him is it’s Big Lie Bolton, it’s Book Deal Bolton,” Mr. Navarro said. “He is doing it for the money, that is pretty clear, and my view is it’s the Washington swamp’s equivalent of revenge porn.”
Behind the scenes, Mr. Navarro has clashed with administration officials — and with Mr. Mnuchin in particular — over the trade talks.
Mr. Mnuchin said in a statement on Thursday that excerpts from Mr. Bolton’s book that he had read were “full of lies and factual inaccuracies.” Other administration officials said in interviews, and on the condition of anonymity, that the details of the China excerpt that had circulated widely were accurate.
On Thursday night, Mr. Pompeo said in a statement, “It is both sad and dangerous that John Bolton’s final public role is that of a traitor who damaged America by violating his sacred trust with its people.” He added, “President Trump’s America is a force for good in the world.”
Michael Pillsbury, a Hudson Institute scholar who has spoken to Mr. Trump on China, noted that previous administrations have also had internal divisions on how hard to challenge Beijing. “It’s not a Cold War 2.0 relationship,” he said. “It’s more cooperative than that.”
In the chaos, some lawmakers have tried to keep Mr. Trump and his administration focused on national security and human rights.
This month, Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, introduced a bill requiring the Defense Department to maintain the ability to repel a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the democratic island. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, co-sponsored bills on Hong Kong and the ethnic Uighur Muslim crisis that Mr. Trump signed into law. On Wednesday, he sent a long letter to McKinsey & Company, the American consulting firm, asking about its work with the Chinese government, according to a copy obtained by The New York Times.
But Mr. Trump has not imposed economic sanctions on senior Chinese officials for human right abuses. Last year, Mr. Trump told Mr. Xi he would not speak up on the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in order to revive trade talks. And Mr. Bolton wrote that he heard Mr. Trump say after getting news of a 1.5-million-person rally in Hong Kong, “I don’t want to get involved” and “We have human rights problems, too.”
Mr. Trump said last month that he would punish Beijing for moves to restrict freedoms in Hong Kong, but has not announced specific actions.
Embracing the language of economic populism, Mr. Trump denounced China’s trade practices during his 2016 campaign. But as president, Mr. Trump assumed the role of dealmaker and moved quickly to develop a personal bond with Mr. Xi, hosting him at his Mar-a-Lago resort in April 2017. The two men shared a meal that included what Mr. Trump called “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen.”
Mr. Trump started a trade war 16 months later, raising tensions. During trade negotiations, the president’s desire to reach a quick deal sometimes undercut advisers like Mr. Lighthizer who wanted to press for deeper changes to China’s economic structure.
This year, the Trump campaign has already spent millions in advertising dollars trying to drum into voters a message that Mr. Trump is tough on China. But Biden aides pointed to polls that show Mr. Trump has struggled to gain traction with that argument. And Mr. Biden has embraced the details of the Bolton book in his messaging.
“If these accounts are true, it’s not only morally repugnant, it’s a violation of Donald Trump’s sacred duty to the American people to protect America’s interests and defend our values,” he said in a statement.
Still, even with all the revelations, it is hard to say which candidate Chinese leaders prefer, said Jude Blanchette, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“A Trump administration brings four more years of intense — and chaotic — pressure on Beijing,” he said, “while a Biden presidency may well be able to rally key allies to constrain China’s more damaging behavior.”
Last month, the Trump White House released a 16-page document chronicling its “competitive approach” toward China, saying that the administration’s policy was intended “to protect United States national interests.” It made no mention of Mr. Trump’s political fortunes.
Ana Swanson contributed reporting.