On Sunday, Sept. 23, the Des Moines Register published some of the dullest material you’ll ever see in a newspaper. Yet it provoked President Trump and triggered a bizarre twist in Trump’s expanding trade war.
The Register ran a 4-page advertising supplement headlined “China Watch,” put together by China Daily, a state-run news operation that publishes in English. One of the 11 articles in the supplement pointed out, correctly, that Trump’s trade war is forcing Chinese importers to buy soybeans from South American farmers, in lieu of American ones. Another article chronicled the evolution of the Chinese economy. For those wanting more, there was a reminiscence of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s “fun” days as a student in Iowa, a puff piece on Chinese fashion icon Yue-Sai Kan, and a lifestyle column touting the virtues of kung fu.
Pretty innocuous stuff. Yet Trump interpreted the ad spread as propaganda meant to interfere with U.S. elections, the same way Russia did in 2016. “We learned that they are trying to meddle in our elections and we’re not going to let that happen,” Trump said in remarks at the United Nations in New York on Sept. 25. “They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade.”
Trump administration officials went further, telling reporters anonymously that China is intensifying both covert and overt activities meant to undermine Trump and his Republican party in the upcoming midterm elections. During a White House briefing, a “senior administration official” told reporters that Chinese interference in the United States has reached “unacceptable levels” that will soon be met with a sweeping American response.
Meh. It’s obvious that China opposes Trump’s protectionist policies and is seeking leverage to help counteract them. And there’s a natural alliance between farmers and other U.S. exporters hurt by Trump’s trade war, and China, which is a customer of those exporters. But there’s no evidence of a Chinese effort to swing U.S. elections the way Trump and his minions hysterically assert. For that reason, this week’s Trump-o-meter reads WEAK, our third lowest rating:
If evidence emerges showing China is targeting American voters with fake interest groups, fraudulent ads, smear social-media campaigns, email barrages and other tools used by the Russians, then we’ll relent and give Trump more credit for whatever crackdown is coming. But there’s no comparison between Russian subterfuge and what we know about China. Russia mounted a sophisticated and targeted campaign in 2016 to influence millions of American voters, and especially to persuade some who might have voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton to stay home and sit out the election. It’s unknowable whether that effort swung the vote in Trump’s favor, but some think it did. Russia has used the same tactics to interfere in other countries’ elections.
China Daily, by contrast, is properly registered as a foreign agent with the U.S. government, leaving no mystery regarding who it serves – the Chinese government. The organization occasionally purchases ad space in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, just as it did in the Register. The ads are labeled for what they are. They constitute propaganda the same way an ad for Viagra or Crest toothpaste amounts to propaganda. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine Iowans believing Chinese ads more than they believe the real news the Register publishes.
China does cheat on trade, by stealing corporate secrets, limiting foreign access to its home market, and subsidizing state-run businesses that undercut unsubsidized competitors on global markets. Trump is on solid ground when he highlights those abuses, even if most trade experts argue that tariffs are the wrong remedy. So Trump is undermining his own crusade by mixing bogus claims about election interference with legitimate grievances.
This may not last for long. The White House promises that Vice President Mike Pence will soon give a speech enumerating China’s election interferences, and outlining the U.S. response. When a policy matter gets delegated to the vice president, that usually means it’s busy work soon to be forgotten. Like Infrastructure Week, which is now the inside-the-beltway meme for steakless sizzle.
Trump’s trade war is intensifying, however. He has now placed fresh tariffs on $307 billion worth of imports, and threatened much more. Ford Motor Co. said the Trump tariffs will shave profits by $1 billion over two years, and farmers say $5 billion in aid from Washington won’t nearly offset the losses associated with Trump’s trade wars. And China shows no signs of buckling. Watch out for more dreadfully boring propaganda.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman