HONG KONG — In his most extensive comments on the months of unrest in Hong Kong, President Trump said Wednesday that China should “humanely” settle the situation before a trade deal is reached.
His comments, delivered on Twitter, for the first time tied the fate of pro-democracy protesters to a trade deal with China, a top administration priority.
Trump praised President Xi Jinping of China as “a great leader” and suggested a “personal meeting” could help solve the crisis in Hong Kong. He also said, “China is not our problem, though Hong Kong is not helping.”
“Of course China wants to make a deal,” he said. “Let them work humanely with Hong Kong first!”
He reiterated his support for Xi on Thursday, saying that if the Chinese leader met personally with the protesters, “there would be a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem.”
Although the protests have been going on for more than two months, as demonstrators have filled streets and jammed airport terminals in actions that have frequently ended with violent police crackdowns, Trump had all but ignored the situation, offering tepid, short statements. His comments Wednesday stopped short of praising or supporting the protesters, as both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have done, and he did not explain what he meant by “humanely” working with Hong Kong.
One day earlier, Trump took no stance when asked by reporters. “The Hong Kong thing is a very tough situation,” he said Tuesday. “Very tough. We’ll see what happens. But I’m sure it’ll work out.”
He added: “I hope it works out for everybody, including China. I hope it works out peacefully. I hope nobody gets hurt. I hope nobody gets killed.”
He had previously called the protests “riots,” repeating language used by the Chinese government that is strongly disputed by protesters, and said, “That’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China.”
The White House’s restraint on the issue has stood out in Washington, where the protests have been the source of a rare sight: broad bipartisan agreement.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader; Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader; and Senator Marco Rubio are among the Republicans who have put out full-throated statements in support of the protests. Across the aisle, Nancy Pelosi, the House majority leader; Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader; and most of the Democratic nominees for president have done the same.
The protesters, initially stirred in opposition to a proposed law that would allow extraditions to mainland China, have expanded their demands to include universal suffrage, an independent investigation of the police’s handling of the demonstrations, and amnesty for hundreds of arrested protesters. The protests have been mostly peaceful but have occasionally turned violent, including a chaotic scene at the airport Tuesday when demonstrators attacked two men from mainland China, including a journalist.
The police have routinely used tear gas, pepper spray, and batons to disperse protesters. Hong Kong officials have resisted an independent commission of inquiry into police tactics, some of which have been condemned by international groups including the UN Human Rights office, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. The government asserts that an investigation already underway by a police watchdog is adequate, but critics say the body is staffed with pro-government figures.
Nor have officials indicated any willingness to submit to the protesters’ demands, increasing fears that the impasse could lead to a bloody, Tiananmen-style crackdown by Beijing. Trump tweeted Tuesday that the Chinese government had moved troops to the border with Hong Kong and encouraged everyone to be “calm and safe.”