WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump was vague on Friday about whether he would sign or veto legislation to back protesters in Hong Kong as he tries to strike a trade deal with China, and boasted that he alone had prevented Beijing from crushing the demonstrations with a million soldiers.
In one of his most grandiose statements yet over relations with China, Trump said he had told Chinese President Xi Jinping that crushing the Hong Kong protesters would have “a tremendous negative impact” on efforts to reach an accord to end a 16-month trade war between the United States and China.
“If it weren’t for me Hong Kong would have been obliterated in 14 minutes,” Trump told Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” without offering any evidence.
“He’s got a million soldiers standing outside of Hong Kong that aren’t going in only because I ask him please don’t do it, you’ll be making a big mistake, it’s going to have a tremendous negative impact on the trade deal and he wants to make a trade deal,” Trump added, referring to Xi.
Trump was asked what he planned to do about calls for him to veto congressional legislation supporting the Hong Kong protesters that has angered China. He appeared to link it with the trade deal he has been seeking, but gave no clear answer.
“Look we have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine. He’s an incredible guy. We have to stand.
“But I’d like to see them work it out. Okay? We have to see them work it out. But I stand with Hong Kong, I stand with freedom, I stand with all of the things that we want to do.
“But we also are in the process of making the largest trade deal in history and if we could do that that would be great … If it weren’t for me thousands of people would have been killed in Hong Kong right now and you wouldn’t have any riots you’d have a police state.”
When Trump was later asked by reporters whether he would sign the Hong Kong legislation, which was passed unanimously in the Senate and received only one vote against in the House, he was again non-committal. “It’s being sent over. We’re going to take a very good look at it.”
The legislation would require the State Department to certify, at least annually, that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to justify the favorable U.S. trading terms that have helped it maintain its position as a world financial center. It also threatens sanctions for human rights violations.
A veto by the president can be overridden by two-thirds votes in both the Senate and the House. The legislation will automatically become law on Dec. 3 if Trump opts to do nothing.
A person familiar with the matter told Reuters on Wednesday that the president was likely to approve the Hong Kong legislation and its chief Senate sponsor, Republican Marco Rubio, predicted on Thursday that he would do so.
The White House did not provide any clarification of Trump’s comments.
The Dallas Morning News newspaper quoted Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz as saying Congress would override any veto.
“President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party cannot silence the United States Congress,” it quoted him as saying.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Trump’s ‘deference’ to Xi did not reflect the views of the American people or Congress.
“For a guy who promised to be tough on China, President Trump’s reliable deference to President Xi is all the more bewildering. Being tough on China when it comes to human rights will also help us win the battle on trade,” he said.
Months of increasingly violent street protests in Hong Kong have raised fears that China might send troops from the mainland to crush the unrest, but there has been no sign of the massive intervention Trump referred to.
In August, Beijing moved thousands of troops into Hong Kong in an operation state news agency Xinhua described as a routine “rotation.” The city’s government has said the mainland army is not part of Hong Kong police operations to quell the demonstrations.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Steve Holland, Lisa Lambert and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)