WASHINGTON — President Trump suggested Friday that he might veto legislation designed to support pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong — despite its near-unanimous support in the House and Senate — to pave the way for a trade deal with China.
Speaking on the ‘‘Fox & Friends’’ morning program, the president said that he was balancing competing priorities in the US-China relationship.
‘‘We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi [Jinping]; he’s a friend of mine. He’s an incredible guy, but we have to stand . . . I’d like to see them work it out, OK?’’ the president said. ‘‘I stand with freedom, I stand with all of the things that I want to do, but we are also in the process of making one of the largest trade deals in history. And if we could do that, it would be great.’’
The House on Wednesday passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act by a vote of 417-1. The lone holdout was Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky. That came one day after the Senate had approved the measure on a unanimous vote.
The veto-proof majorities indicate that Congress could overrule the president if he tries to block the bill from becoming law.
‘‘If he does veto this bill, sacrificing American values in the process, Congress should immediately and overwhelmingly override,’’ tweeted Scott Paul, the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, who has often backed Trump’s trade policies.
Once a bill is passed by both chambers of Congress, the president has 10 days to sign it into law or veto it. If he does neither, it will become law automatically. That means Trump has until after Thanksgiving to make a decision.
The legislation authorizes sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials involved in human rights abuses and requires the State Department to conduct an annual review of the special autonomous status that the US grants Hong Kong in trade matters.
The Hong Kong bill threatens to complicate trade negotiations that already are stalled on several key issues. Chinese officials have criticized the congressional action as unwanted interference in their country’s internal affairs. Vice President Mike Pence said this week it would be ‘‘very hard’’ to finalize a trade deal if China resorts to violence to put down the protests, now in their sixth month.
China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, ending more than 150 years of British colonial rule. Maintaining control over the prosperous enclave, which Beijing governs under ‘‘the one-country, two-systems framework,’’ is a top priority for Xi.
Chinese officials would likely react sharply if the US legislation becomes law. But that reaction wouldn’t necessarily imperil the trade talks, according to Jeff Moon, a former US trade negotiator in the Obama administration. In the past, China has reacted to perceived slights by denying permission for US Navy vessels to make port visits to Hong Kong, he noted.
‘‘Trump’s task is to de-link Hong Kong from trade, and to help Xi find a way to express displeasure over US legislation without taking precipitous action that will create indefinite deadlock in the trade war,’’ Moon said. ‘‘The irony here is that Trump’s comments on Fox signal uncertain resolve and negotiating weakness in the trade war while talks are faltering and he needs to show determination to press China on the whole range of issues, not just agricultural products and tariffs.’’
Trump last month announced an ‘‘agreement in principle’’ with China on a partial trade deal, which he hoped to sign by mid-November. But talks have deadlocked over the details of Chinese purchases of US farm products and plans for the removal of Trump’s tariffs on $360 billion in Chinese goods.
Trump’s comments Friday come one day after Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, one of the authors of the Hong Kong legislation, predicted on CNBC that the president would sign the measure.
‘‘My understanding is that they will sign it,’’ Rubio said, referring to the White House.
Trump’s public comments about Hong Kong have been inconsistent. In June, he said a resolution of the protests was between Hong Kong and China ‘‘because Hong Kong is part of China.’’
Two months later, he tweeted that Xi should ‘‘humanely’’ deal with the situation before a trade deal was inked. ‘‘Of course China wants to make a deal. Let them work humanely with Hong Kong first!’’ the president wrote.
The president has faced calls from lawmakers in both parties to speak out about what’s at stake in Hong Kong’s escalating demonstrations. ‘‘The world should hear from him directly that the United States stands with these brave men and women,’’ Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week.
The president also claimed, without evidence, that he had saved the lives of thousands of Hong Kong demonstrators by telling Xi not to intervene.
‘‘The only reason he’s not going in is because I’m saying it’s going to affect our trade deal,’’ Trump said.