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The fallout of John Bolton’s China bombshells



This is the web version of Eastworld, Fortune’s newsletter focused on business and technology in Asia. Subscribe here to get future editions in your inbox.

Former White House national security advisor John Bolton says President Donald Trump “pleaded” with Chinese President Xi Jinping for help in winning the 2020 presidential election and ignored Beijing’s human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang province.  

That sentence, or some variation of it, leads a torrent of news stories over the past 24 hours detailing revelations in Bolton’s forthcoming book, The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir. The U.S. Justice Department asked a federal judge on Wednesday to halt publication of the book, which has already been printed and distributed to booksellers, on the grounds that it would damage national security. Bolton published a lengthy excerpt in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal.

The excerpt depicts Trump as an erratic, ill-informed, and unscrupulous leader eager to subordinate U.S. national security objectives to boost his own bid for re-election. It’s an unflattering portrait that contradicts Trump’s claim to be the first U.S. president to “get tough” with China since Richard Nixon restored relations between the two countries in 1972. 

Bolton recounts a dinner meeting between Trump and Xi during last year’s G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, in which Trump “stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s capability and pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win.” He recalls that Trump “stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome.”

Trump’s conversations with Xi, Bolton remarks, “reflected not only the incoherence in his trade policy but also the confluence in Trump’s mind of his own political interests and U.S. national interests.”

Bolton characterizes Trump’s 2018 reversal of penalties imposed by the Commerce Department on Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE and his 2019 offer to drop criminal prosecution against Huawei as misguided efforts to ingratiate himself with Xi—all in the hope of closing a trade deal that would help lock up the farm vote. He alleges Trump’s zeal for a deal blinded him to the significance of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and Beijing’s detention of Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim minority in the northwest Xinjiang province.

He also suggests Trump, enthralled by the tales of “Wall Street financiers who had gotten rich off mainland investments,” would have few qualms about selling out Taiwan.

Trump loyalists dismiss Bolton’s account as an attempt to settle old political scores. In a Fox News interview on Wednesday night, Trump lashed out at him as a “washed-up guy” who “broke the law.” Democrats, meanwhile, are castigating Bolton for refusing to be a witness in Trump’s impeachment trial earlier this year.

It’s unclear how—or whether—”Bolton’s bombshells” will affect the “phase one” trade agreement Trump signed with China in January. Chinese purchases from the U.S. have been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic. Late last month, Trump expressed frustration over the slow pace.

In a full day of testimony before the House and Senate on Wednesday, White House trade representative Robert Lighthizer said he expects China to honor its promise to buy an additional $200 billion in American goods and services over the next two years. 

Lighthizer may be right. But it also may be that Bolton has made it harder for Trump to claim political credit for the deal. Poll after poll shows that distrust of China is one of the few issues on which voters from both parties agree. Trump campaign strategists believe his efforts to blame China for the pandemic have been resonating with voters. Until yesterday, at least, many were pushing the idea that Trump is more likely than Democratic challenger Joe Biden to hold China accountable as one of the campaign’s strongest messages.

On Wednesday, Biden seized on Bolton’s allegations as evidence that Trump “was willing to trade away our most cherished democratic values for the empty promise of a flimsy trade deal.” The same day, the Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans, released an ad skewering Trump for getting “rolled” in his dealings with China. “They know Donald Trump is: weak, corrupt, ridiculed,” the voiceover intones. “China beats him every time.”

More Eastworld news below! 

Clay Chandler
Executive Editor, Asia

This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Grady McGregor. Reach him at

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