Trump Signs Hong Kong Sanctions Bill, Pivots to Criticizing Biden

Date: Wednesday, July 15, 2020
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Law requires sanctions on Chinese officials who crack down Hong Kong residents’ rights

WASHINGTON—President Trump said he signed into law a bipartisan sanctions bill to punish Chinese officials over Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong, in an hour-long press conference at the White House dominated by criticisms of Joe Biden, his presumptive 2020 election rival.

The law requires sanctions targeting Chinese officials who crack down on the rights of Hong Kong residents to free speech and peaceful assembly, as well as the banks that do business with those officials.

Mr. Trump spoke for 64 minutes from the Rose Garden under a blazing sun. The event was ostensibly held to focus on punishing China for its actions in Hong Kong, but the president used most of his speech to deliver political attacks on the former vice president on everything from climate-change policy to health-care policy.

He mentioned Mr. Biden’s name more than 25 times in his remarks and the words “Hong Kong” seven times.

Mr. Trump’s remarks unfolded like a political rally from the White House, a break with past presidents’ longstanding policy of avoiding overt campaigning during official remarks.

Mr. Trump has increasingly sought to shift focus to Mr. Biden amid polls showing him trailing the former vice president and criticism of his response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 136,000 people in the U.S.

“If we had listened to Joe Biden, hundreds of thousands of additional lives would have been lost,” Mr. Trump said without offering evidence to support his assertion.

“What we heard in the Rose Garden today wasn’t a president at all,” said the Biden campaign’s communications director, Kate Bedingfield, in a statement. “It was a politician who sees his re-election slipping away from him and who is furious that his own botched response to the coronavirus pandemic has denied him the campaign events he so craves.”

Mr. Trump projected confidence in his chances of winning re-election. “I think we have a great chance,” he said.

The president also said he had signed an executive order that he said would end preferential treatment for Hong Kong, a blow to its status as an international financial center.

The executive order on “Hong Kong normalization,” published late Tuesday, follows up on an earlier May request asking U.S. agencies to begin the work of eliminating policy provisions that have favored Hong Kong over China for more than two decades. Tuesday’s order includes a notification for pulling out of the U.S.-Hong Kong extradition treaty that took effect in 1998 as well as an elimination of rules that have favored Hong Kong passport holders over those with Chinese passports. U.S. officials have previously announced visa restrictions related to the new Hong Kong security law and new limits on military-related exports to the territory.

Mr. Trump first announced that the administration would begin rolling back the special preferences for Hong Kong in May, when he outlined several other measures to punish China, including suspending entry to the U.S. by Chinese nationals deemed security risks to American scientific research.

“We’ve all watched what happened—not a good situation. Their freedoms have been taken away, their rights have been taken away,” Mr. Trump said of Hong Kong.

In his remarks Tuesday, Mr. Trump again blamed China for the spread of coronavirus around the world.

“Make no mistake: We hold China fully responsible for concealing the virus and unleashing it on the world,” Mr. Trump said.

The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The law mandates sanctions on people or entities that the administration identifies as materially contributing to the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Examples include a police unit cracking down on protesters or Chinese Communist Party officials who enforce the national-security law. Banks found knowingly doing business with blacklisted officials and agencies could also be sanctioned.

“The national security law imposed by the Chinese communist government has one purpose: to crush the autonomy and basic rights of the people of Hong Kong,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), who sponsored the bill with Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.).

“This overt act of authoritarianism requires a decisive American response, which the Hong Kong Autonomy Act provides,” Mr. Toomey said. “These new, mandatory, and punishing sanctions on those who undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy shows the communists in Beijing, and the world, that America stands with Hong Kong.”

A provision in the bill gives Congress the ability to override a president’s decision to waive or terminate sanctions through a joint resolution of disapproval, which must pass both the House and Senate by a veto-proof two-thirds majority.

But Mr. Trump signaled his disagreement with that backstop in a signing statement that said his administration would treat any limitations on his ability to conduct the nation’s foreign affairs “as advisory and nonbinding.” In doing so, Mr. Trump sought to resist what the White House sees as congressional encroachment on the president’s foreign-policy powers. Lawmakers in recent years have sought to increase their role in foreign affairs and trade after seeing an increasing use of presidential authority.

 

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