President Trump unexpectedly used a high-level United Nations meeting on nonproliferation Wednesday to accuse China of seeking to meddle in the November midterm election in retaliation for the worsening U.S. trade war with Beijing.
"China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election ... against my administration.” said Trump, who was leading his first Security Council meeting. “They do not want me, or us, to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade."
A senior administration official later said the Chinese effort involved propaganda, including newspaper advertisements, and retaliatory trade tariffs to target soybean farmers in the Midwest who supported Trump in the last election.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, quickly rejected Trump’s "unwarranted accusations" of election meddling. "We did not and will not interfere in any country's domestic affairs," he told the General Assembly.
U.S. national security officials have previously warned of digital efforts by China and other countries related to the Nov. 6 election. But Trump had not previously singled Beijing out for criticism on a charge that is politically problematic for the White House.
He has repeatedly dismissed or derided the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Moscow directed an extensive campaign of computer hacking and social media during the 2016 election to help Trump win. During a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July, Trump suggested he believed the Kremlin denials more than the U.S. evidence, but he later backtracked on that.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has indicted more than 30 people and obtained guilty pleas from four of Trump’s former senior aides in his investigation of the Russian operation and whether the Trump campaign cooperated with it.
Speaking later Wednesday to reporters, Trump repeated his charge that China is “trying to meddle in our elections. And we’re not going to let that happen, just as we’re not going to let that happen with Russia.”
In a phone briefing for reporters, a senior administration official said the Chinese effort has “reached an unacceptable level,” but made clear it did not involve hacked emails and phony social media posts, as Russia’s operation did in 2016.
Chinese authorities use propaganda that “has a chilling effect on free speech,” said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. The official said Beijing “punishes or rewards” a long list of targets, including movie studios, journalists, think tanks and entrepreneurs, based on whether they speak favorably of China.
In the trade war, China has specifically aimed tariffs at soybean farmers who support Trump, the official said. China is the world’s largest importer of soybeans, and prices for U.S. farmers have fallen sharply this year because of the tariffs and a record harvest.
Trump’s charge comes amid growing tension between the U.S. and China. On Monday, Washington and Beijing hit each other with their biggest round of tariffs yet, escalating the trade war between the world’s two largest economies.
The Trump administration imposed new 10% tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods, spanning thousands of products including food seasonings, baseball gloves, network routers and industrial machinery parts. China retaliated immediately with new taxes on $60 billion of American goods, including meat, chemicals, clothes and auto parts.
In all, U.S. tariffs now apply to more than $250 billion of Chinese goods, about half the amount it sells to the United States. China has fired back with tariffs on U.S. exports worth more than $110 billion.
Nonpartisan polls since midsummer have shown that nearly half of Americans say the tariffs are bad for the U.S. economy, meaning the dispute may resonate in the November election.
During the Security Council session, Trump praised nuclear-armed North Korea, which has not taken any public actions to denuclearize, and attacked Iran, which dismantled or mothballed its nuclear infrastructure under the 2015 international accord that Trump has rejected.
The Trump administration began reimposing economic sanctions on Tehran this summer that were suspended as part of the deal, and plans to add sanctions in November in an effort to cut off its oil exports.
“After that, the United States will pursue additional sanctions, tougher than ever before, to counter the entire range of Iran’s malign conduct,” Trump said. “Any individual or entity who fails to comply with these sanctions will face severe consequences.”
French President Emmanuel Macron was the first of several leaders who challenged Trump’s Iran policy. He called for a long-term strategy to manage the crisis “that cannot be reduced to a policy of sanctions and containment of Iran."
“Ensuring nonproliferation also requires collective leadership, of the type that led to the [Iran nuclear] agreement,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said.
The five other signatories to the Iran accord — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — this week announced they would set up a special payment system to continue trade and business ties with Iran.
Critics argue that by pulling out of the Iran accord, Trump has isolated the U.S. and aided hard-liners in Tehran who opposed any rapprochement with the West.
“By splintering the coalition against Iran, he is rolling the dice that Iran will capitulate … and negotiate with the United States almost exclusively on U.S. terms,” said Daniel Fried, who served in the State Department for four decades. “The odds are not with him, and we come out of the process weaker. We are isolated, not they.”
Trump also met Wednesday with one of his closest allies, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and seemed to reverse himself by advocating for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, apparently returning to what had been the official U.S. policy for a generation.
“I like two-state solution,” Trump said. “I think that's what I think works best.”
Trump’s efforts to forge what he has called “the ultimate deal” have foundered over what the Palestinians, and most Arab nations, see as an overtly pro-Israel bias in the White House. Among the most hotly contested actions was Trump’s decision in December to recognize the disputed city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.
Palestinian officials have refused to meet with White House envoys since then, and the administration has taken several steps to punish them, including cutting funding for the U.N. agency that provide humanitarian relief to displaced Palestinians.
Pressed by reporters, Trump said he expected to unveil the peace proposal in the next three or four months.