On Wednesday President Trump accused China of election interference. Later the White House clarified: Trump was just talking about retaliatory tariffs. Then, during his press conference, Trump reiterated that yes, he did consider China’s tariffs as election meddling.
At the United Nations, Trump said, "Regrettably, we found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November. Against my administration."
In a White House arranged call, officials explained Trump's earlier statement, "Some examples of the ways that China is actively interfering in our political system include hurting farmers and workers in states and districts that voted for the president." Moments after that call, Trump himself said that he had tariffs in mind when he made his comments on election interference.
During the press conference, Trump said regarding China "they would like to see me lose an election," before going on to talk about trade problems.
The problem with this, of course, is that China’s tariffs didn’t just come out of the blue to target Trump because Beijing “doesn’t like him,” but instead are a response to the tariffs imposed in a trade war that Trump himself initiated.
Faulting China for using the same sledgehammer tactics that Washington seems to favor, is not only, to borrow Trump’s words, unfair, but also absurd. Trump shouldn’t be complaining because others are using his playbook against him.
More importantly, calling these tariffs electing interference or meddling distracts and diminishes from the very real problems facing election security in the United States. Those threats, such as the disinformation campaigns engineered by Tehran and Moscow and voting machines that are vulnerable to hacks and have no backup system to allow a paper audit, are serious and must not be talked about in the same terms as tariffs that the president quite literally brought upon ourselves.
Of course, tariff manipulation and targeting could be a factor in elections. For example, if a foreign power specifically targeted a major product from a specific district with the hope of pushing candidates to pursue specific policies or to push voters to favor a certain candidate.
China’s tariffs, however, are not this scenario. They came directly in response to U.S. tariffs. They target a range of goods that tend to be some of the largest exports to China. The tariffs would be pulled back with any change in U.S. policy – indeed, Beijing has talked repeatedly about its support for free trade and a reduction in tariffs.
Instead of engaging in these talks, Trump has decided to complain about China’s tactics pushing back on his own. Now, he is calling that election meddling. Americans must not be duped by this talk and must recognize that these are problems that Trump brought with his trade war and that Trump can fix with negotiations and one of those better deals he keeps promising. The call that he promised with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his press conference would be a great place to start.