Last Wednesday, Donald Trump signed the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019” which reaffirms U.S. support for the city’s autonomy. Before reaching the president’s desk, the legislation was passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives with overwhelming bipartisan support. Pro-democracy activists and protesters in Hong Kong greeted the passing of the bill with great enthusiasm and thanked the United States and Donald Trump for this powerful gesture of support. In the streets of Hong Kong, people were singing The Star-Spangled Banner and waving the American flag, and, here and there, the much-debated image of Trump’s head attached to the body of Rocky Balboa made an appearance in the cheering crowd.
Trump’s signing of the bill into law came as a bit of a surprise to observers as it had been preceded by weeks of prevarication on the issue. During a recent phone-in interview with Fox and Friends, he had declared that “we have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi. … He is a friend of mine.” Donald Trump is clearly caught between a rock and a hard place as public sentiment is calling for the American president to make a clear statement in favor of democracy and the rule of law in the semi-autonomous territory of Hong Kong while he is in the middle of trying to carve out a trade deal with Beijing. As the human rights bill was making its way through Congress, China had strongly and repeatedly signaled that it would consider the legislation an act of meddling in the country’s internal affairs and that retaliatory measures would ensue. So, why did Trump decide to sign the bill anyway?
It is quite obvious that Donald Trump is mortally afraid of upsetting the delicate trade negotiations with Beijing and that he is about as interested in protecting the human rights of Hong Kongers as he is interested in genuinely fighting corruption in Ukraine. But the bill in question had such overwhelming support in the House and the Senate that Trump’s veto could have easily been overridden by Congress which would have looked truly bad for the president. The path he decided to take to get out of this fix is an interesting one.
Donald Trump quite publicly signed the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act” on Wednesday when lawmakers, journalists and citizens were already busy gearing up for Thanksgiving. Then, he attached a signing statement to the piece of legislation that Congress had forced on him against his will. This statement, which was subsequently released very quietly by the Office of the Press Secretary, contains language that, in a nutshell, allows the president to essentially ignore any and all of the act’s provision as he sees fit: “Certain provisions of the Act would interfere with the exercise of the President’s constitutional authority to state the foreign policy of the United States. My Administration will treat each of the provisions of the Act consistently with the President’s constitutional authorities with respect to foreign relations.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has since taken to Twitter to call out Donald Trump for his attempt to play both sides in this matter: “President Trump: Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act overwhelmingly. Decency, humanity and the rule of law compel you to enforce it. Stop playing games. We cannot afford for you to be soft on the Chinese Communist Party.”
Ignoring the new legislation he has just signed would indeed be a serious slap in the face for both Congress and the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong on Donald Trump’s part, but based on his past record it would probably not come as a surprise to anyone.