President Donald Trump spent Tuesday afternoon rambling at length about a series of unrelated topics after convening an event in the Rose Garden meant to announce new actions on China.
Trump announced those actions within a few minutes and said little about them. Instead, he launched into a partially scripted attack on his 2020 election rival that stretched into the early evening and went well beyond a critique of Joe Biden‘s policy toward China.
Frustrated at his inability to hold campaign rallies due to the surging coronavirus pandemic, Trump appeared to bring his rally speech to the White House instead. Past presidents have made an effort to avoid such overtly political remarks from the White House, but those customs often mean little to Trump and his discursive speech on Tuesday was nearly identical to his attacks on the trail.
He touched on immigration, policing, statues and monuments, trade and climate change, moving from ad-libbed musing to more scripted comments warning that Biden would “destroy our country.”
“We could go on for days,” Trump said midway through his address.
Before he launched into his blindly political speech, Trump said he would sign a bill and executive order punishing China for its actions in Hong Kong. He also said he held Beijing responsible for concealing coronavirus at the start of a now-global pandemic and “unleashing it upon the world.”
“Could have stopped it,” Trump said during the late-afternoon Rose Garden event that was added to the his schedule a few hours earlier. “They should have stopped it.”
At the start of July, the US Senate approved a final version of legislation that would punish China for moves that lawmakers fear will crush democratic freedoms in Hong Kong. Trump made good on his announcement, signing the legislation Tuesday night.
The measure, approved by unanimous, consent imposes sanctions on businesses and individuals that help China restrict Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Trump also on Tuesday night released his executive order aimed at ending preferential treatment for Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong will now be treated the same as mainland China,” he had said in the Rose Garden of the order. “No special privileges, no special economic treatment and no export of sensitive technologies.”
The President has faced growing pressure to adopt a tougher stance on China as the country exerts new control over Hong Kong and as its handling of the coronavirus comes under scrutiny.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said late Tuesday that the President’s “signing this critical bipartisan human rights legislation passed by Congress is a reversal from his years of enabling President Xi’s crackdown against Hong Kong.” But she also criticized his relationship with his Chinese counterpart, saying Trump should “stop coddling President Xi and take strong, strategic action to hold Chinese officials accountable.”
The Biden campaign also slammed Trump’s event.
“Today’s statement … was ostensibly supposed to be about China, but there was one topic that President Trump couldn’t seem to get off his mind: Joe Biden, whose name the President invoked nearly 30 times,” Kate Bedingfield, the campaign’s deputy manager, said in a release.
“The American taxpayer should be reimbursed for the abuse of funds this spectacle represented,” she added.
Political advisers have encouraged Trump to take a more forceful tone against Biden, who polls show is leading by double digits.
He seemed to take both of those recommendations to heart on Tuesday, decrying Biden’s “entire” career as “a gift to the Chinese Communist Party.”
The China issue has become a leading election year topic as Trump and Biden each attempt to paint the other as weak in the face of aggression from Beijing. Both sides have used the issue in campaign ads.
Trump has stated he is unhappy with the country but that he’s not yet planning to scrap the trade agreement he struck with Chinese President Xi Jinping last year.
He said Tuesday he didn’t have any plans to speak with Xi in the near future.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a formal rejection of “most” of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, the latest in the escalation between Washington and Beijing.
Last week, the Trump administration took action against Chinese officials for their involvement in human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, where Uyghur Muslims and other minority groups have been detained and tortured.
And two weeks ago, the administration announced visa restrictions on current and former Chinese officials who it says “were responsible for eviscerating Hong Kong’s freedoms.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.