Senate Republicans who have been banking on anti-China messages to help them retain their seats and their party’s chamber majority in the 2020 elections say they aren’t bothered by revelations that President Donald Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win reelection and praised Xi’s plan to imprison his nation’s Uighur Muslims in concentration camps.
The details about Trump’s interactions with the Chinese leader were among the explosive claims in a new book from longtime GOP foreign policy aide John Bolton about his time as the president’s national security adviser. Despite Bolton’s longtime ties to the party ― and his history of endorsing and campaigning for many of their colleagues ― Republican senators treated his book the same way they treat Trump’s tweets, pleading a mix of ignorance and apathy.
“I don’t,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) when asked if he had any reaction to the book. Daines, facing a tough challenge in November from Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), has run multiple ads promising to get tough on China.
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, hoping to fend off a challenge from Democrat Cal Cunningham, said it was unlikely he would read Bolton’s book. “Probably not,” Tillis said.
Bolton’s super PAC spent more than $1 million helping Tillis first win election to the Senate in 2014. That was part of the more than $6 million Bolton deployed to help Republicans from 2014 to 2018.
Tillis added that he wasn’t sure if the book’s revelations undercut Trump’s campaign pledges to get tough on China.
Senate Republicans have worked relentlessly to make China the central factor in virtually all of their races, with GOP candidates or groups airing ads about the country’s damage to the U.S. economy and bashing its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump has pursued a similar strategy in the presidential race, spending millions on ads asserting that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is weak on China.
But Bolton’s revelations show how difficult it might be for the GOP to effectively mount an anti-China message, given that many of the party’s elected officials have long supported liberalizing trade with China and amid the evidence that Trump is as likely to praise the communist nation’s authoritarian leadership as he is to criticize it.
“Senate Republicans have spent a lot of money on phony TV ads claiming they’ve stood up to China when the record is clear that they haven’t,” said Helen Kalla, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman. “With new reports that President Trump was ‘pleading’ with the president of China to help him get re-elected, let’s see what those Republicans are willing to say now. We’re waiting.”
Top strategists working on GOP Senate races said they view Bolton’s book as essentially a one-week story, one unlikely to make a significant enough impact to alter a cycle-long strategy focused on bashing China.
Republicans are counting on that strategy to maintain a Senate majority, even if Biden defeats Trump. The GOP has a 53-47 edge in the chamber, but that hold appears threatened by the current political math. Democrats are on offense in a number of Senate races, aiming to oust not only Daines in Montana and Tillis in North Carolina, but Republican incumbents in Maine, Iowa, Arizona and Colorado. Republican pick-up opportunities seem limited to Alabama and, to a lesser extent, Michigan.
Bolton in his book writes that Trump asked Xi to help his reelection prospects by increasing Chinese purchases of wheat and soybeans, which could boost the economy in some of the farm states the president needs to carry. Bolton also writes that Trump didn’t push back when Xi defended the Chinese government’s decision to build concentration camps to hold 1 million Uighur Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang. According to Bolton, Trump said he thought that was “the exact right thing to do.”
The Washington Post, New York Times and other media outlets reported the contents of Bolton’s book on Wednesday, shortly before Trump’s Justice Department filed a restraining order seeking to block its publication, arguing it contained classified information.
Even some of the Senate’s biggest China hawks were unwilling to criticize Trump’s actions. Asked if it was appropriate for Trump to support the construction of concentration camps, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) replied simply: “I hope every president is focused on human rights.”
“I think what you do matters most,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) “You can play the, ‘He said, he said, he said’ game, and I’m sure we’re going to play that game for weeks. What I care about at the end of the day is I care about what the president does and I care about action and staying tough on China… I think he has been very strong and tough, so I think the proof is in the pudding.”
Democrats hope they can use Bolton’s exposé to paint Republicans as hypocrites with little interest in standing up to China outside of an election season. Outside groups backing Biden are likely to use the revelations in advertising aimed at blunting the effectiveness of Trump’s barrage of attacks depicting the former vice president as soft on China.
In Montana, Daines has aired multiple ads promising to boost “made in America” manufacturing and blaming China for the spread of COVID-19. “We need to break our reliance on China and bring our jobs home,” Daines says in an ad his campaign began airing Thursday.
Democrats have countered by noting Daines helped Procter and Gamble expand its manufacturing operations in China while working as an executive there in the 1990s, and regularly advocated for closer ties to China before his reelection bid ramped up, taking five official trips to the country during his first term in office.
Republicans have been the most aggressive in attacking a Democrat for ties to China in Arizona, where GOP Sen. Martha McSally is trailing in public polling to former astronaut and gun control advocate Mark Kelly. McSally and other Republicans have argued Kelly is in China’s pocket because of an investment the Chinese conglomerate Tencent made in a company he co-founded.
“Mark Kelly doesn’t just invest in China, China invests in him,” a narrator says darkly in a recent ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Democrats argued McSally’s demonization of China means little if she’s not willing to criticize Trump on the same front.
“If ‘getting tough on China’ is more than an empty campaign slogan for Sen. McSally, she’ll forcefully condemn Trump’s actions, including his praise for China’s COVID-19 response and his request for illegal foreign political help,” said Brad Bainum, a spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party.
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.