WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump was vague on Friday about whether he would sign or veto legislation to back protesters in Hong Kong as he tries to strike a trade deal with China, and boasted that he alone had prevented Beijing from crushing the demonstrations with a million soldiers.
In one of his most grandiose statements yet over relations with China, Trump said in a television interview he had told Chinese President Xi Jinping that crushing the Hong Kong protesters would have “a tremendous negative impact” on efforts to reach an accord to end a 16-month trade war between the United States and China.
“If it weren’t for me Hong Kong would have been obliterated in 14 minutes,” Trump told Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” without offering any evidence.
“He’s got a million soldiers standing outside of Hong Kong that aren’t going in only because I ask him please don’t do it, you’ll be making a big mistake, it’s going to have a tremendous negative impact on the trade deal and he wants to make a trade deal,” Trump added, referring to Xi.
Trump was asked what he planned to do about calls for him to veto congressional legislation – which was passed almost unanimously – supporting the Hong Kong protesters that has angered China. He appeared to link it with the trade deal he has been seeking, but gave no clear answer.
“Look we have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine. He’s an incredible guy. We have to stand.
“But I’d like to see them work it out. Okay? We have to see them work it out. But I stand with Hong Kong, I stand with freedom, I stand with all of the things that we want to do.
“But we also are in the process of making the largest trade deal in history and if we could do that that would be great … If it weren’t for me thousands of people would have been killed in Hong Kong right now and you wouldn’t have any riots you’d have a police state.”
When Trump was later asked by reporters whether he would sign the Hong Kong legislation, he was again non-committal. “It’s being sent over. We’re going to take a very good look at it.”
The U.S. Congress gave final approval on Wednesday to two bills that back the Hong Kong protesters and threaten China with possible sanctions on human rights.
If the bills become law, the State Department would be required to frequently certify that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to justify the favorable U.S. trading terms that have helped it maintain its position as a world financial center.
The legislation also bans the export of crowd-control munitions, including tear gas and rubber bullets to the Hong Kong police force.
The president has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign a bill passed by Congress, unless he opts to use his veto powers. Bills automatically become law if a president opts to do nothing.
A person familiar with the matter told Reuters on Wednesday that the president was likely to sign the bills into law. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the measure’s chief sponsor in the Senate, predicted on Thursday that Trump would approve the legislation.
It was not immediately known whether Trump, who has a history of sometimes abruptly changing his mind on major policy decisions, was reconsidering his position or else was undecided on his course of action. The White House did not provide any clarification of Trump’s latest pronouncements.
Months of increasingly violent street protests in Hong Kong have raised fears that China might send troops from the mainland to crush the unrest, but there has been no sign of the massive intervention Trump referred to.
In August, Beijing moved thousands of troops across the border into Hong Kong in an operation state news agency Xinhua described at the time as a routine “rotation,” but the city’s government has said the mainland army is not part of Hong Kong police operations to quell the demonstrations.