Opinion: Unlike Ukraine, Trump’s China deal actually takes American interests into account

President Trump speaks at child care summit in Washington
President Trump, shown speaking in Washington on Thursday, announced a preliminary trade deal with China whose biggest beneficiaries appear to be a key member of his political base: U.S. farmers.
(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA/Shutterstock)

The biggest winners in the China trade deal announced Friday appear to be a key part of President Trump’s voter base: U.S. farmers.

There’s nothing wrong with that, because Trump’s political interests coincide with U.S. national interests. On the other hand, consider the other big news coming out of Washington on Friday: the House Judiciary Committee’s approval of two articles of impeachment against Trump related to his now-famous July 25 phone call with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The president is going to be impeached because when he asked Zelensky to conduct a pair of investigations as “a favor,” the only interest being served was Trump’s.

Let’s burrow a little more deeply into the contrast between the two situations. Trump’s China policy is controversial, to be sure; his unilateral use of tariffs that act as a tax on U.S. importers and consumers has been roundly panned by economists and even some GOP lawmakers. He’s also taken considerable flak from Democrats for dipping into the Treasury to provide emergency aid to farmers, whose exports to China plummeted after that country retaliated against Trump’s tariffs.


The “phase one” deal that the administration announced Friday isn’t filling the air with hosannas either. In exchange for the U.S. rolling back some of Trump’s tariffs and not applying the new round that was slated to go into effect Sunday, China agreed to take a few steps to shore up protection for intellectual property and enable more U.S. investment in China, as well as to increase purchases of selected U.S. products.

Mary Lovely of the Peterson Institute for International Economics said China may simply be taking credit for changes it had already made on intellectual property and foreign investment. If so, the only real change produced by the deal would be the increase in U.S. exports, which for farmers would be a whopping $32 billion over the next two years, according to the Wall Street Journal. That would double the amount purchased in 2017.

Whether this amounts to real progress, or whether it makes up for the damage the trade war has done to the U.S. and global economies, is open to debate. But no one can credibly suggest that Trump did something improper, let alone impeachable, by superserving farmers in this deal, even though it will clearly help his reelection campaign. That’s because the debates over Trump’s trade war are debates over policy, pure and simple.

Congressional Republicans say the same is true with Ukraine — it’s a policy dispute. And Democrats, they say, are using that policy dispute as grounds for impeachment, setting a dangerous precedent that will come back to haunt future Democratic presidents.

But to make that argument, Republicans have to ignore what Trump specifically asked for on the call with Zelensky (and what Trump’s personal lawyer and hand-picked emissary to Ukraine were pressing for), and pretend that Trump was concerned about Zelensky’s commitment to the anti-corruption platform the former comedian had campaigned on.

Just by way of reminder, here’s what the president asked Zelensky to investigate.

The first thing Trump mentioned was a bizarre conspiracy theory that the Democratic National Committee email server had not been hacked in 2016 by Russians eager to help the Trump campaign, as multiple U.S. investigations have found, but by Ukrainians trying to frame Russians. According to Trump, a wealthy Ukrainian had somehow spirited the actual DNC server back to Ukraine. That’s the fever dream of someone who has no idea how servers work or how computer forensics are done.


Republicans elide these details and argue that Trump’s concern was about Ukrainian meddling in the election, pointing to Ukrainian officials who criticized him in 2016 for appearing to bless Russia’s seizure of Crimea. But as they say, read the (reconstructed) transcript. Trump’s request is narrowly aimed at removing a taint that rightly clings to his election, namely, that Russia tried to help him win.

The second, more damning request from Trump was for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, who at the time was (and may still be) the leading Democratic contender for the presidency in 2020. Imagine the outcry from Republicans if Barack Obama had asked new French President Francois Hollande in 2012 to look into some supposedly corrupt things Mitt Romney had done while he was a Mormon missionary in France. No matter how Hollande would have responded, the mere request for that kind of foreign intervention against the president’s political rival would have had the GOP calling for Obama’s head on a platter.

But when Trump does it, somehow it becomes a reasonable expression of concern about corruption.

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney had it right when he told reporters in October, “There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.” Trump’s actions on China demonstrate how that influence usually plays out, with presidents finding a way to promote the national interest and their own interests simultaneously. Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine is notably different, however, and that’s why we’re about to witness the first impeachment of the 21st century.