At a United Nations meeting, President Donald Trump claimed the U.S. “found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election.” But the president offered no evidence of covert actions, such as the kind that Russia engaged in during the 2016 election.
Instead, Trump criticized China for publicly trying to “convince people to go against Donald Trump” in the November midterm elections because of the U.S. trade war with China.
On July 6, the U.S. began imposing tariffs on $34 billion in Chinese imports. China retaliated with equal tariffs on $34 billion in U.S. goods, including on soybeans, wheat, corn, sorghum and beef. The trade war has only escalated since.
It was during a U.N. Security Council meeting on counterproliferation in New York that Trump made his accusation about China.
Trump, Sept. 26: Regrettably, we found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration. They do not want me, or us, to win because I am the first President ever to challenge China on trade. And we are winning on trade. We are winning at every level. We don’t want them to meddle or interfere in our upcoming election.
At a press conference after the Security Council meeting, a reporter asked Trump if he has evidence of his “significant allegation” that China is meddling in the 2018 U.S. elections.
“That’s right. That’s what I hear,” Trump said. “We have evidence. We have evidence. It will come out. I can’t tell you now, but it didn’t come out of nowhere, that I can tell you.”
The president then went on to complain that China’s retaliatory tariffs were targeting his supporters. “They actually admitted that they are going after farmers,” Trump said.
At another point, the president said, “One thing that they are trying to do is convince people to go against Donald Trump.”
Earlier in the day, the president tweeted about a four-page supplement in the Des Moines Register that was purchased by China Daily, a Chinese government-run media outlet. His tweet (see below) showed a headline that reads, “Duel undermines benefits of trade.”
China is actually placing propaganda ads in the Des Moines Register and other papers, made to look like news. That’s because we are beating them on Trade, opening markets, and the farmers will make a fortune when this is over! pic.twitter.com/ppdvTX7oz1
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2018
It is not unusual for foreign countries or state-owned media outlets to run advertising supplements in U.S. newspapers. China Daily regularly runs supplements in U.S. papers, including the Washington Post and New York Times.
In a news story about the newspaper ad in Iowa, the Des Moines Register quoted David Skidmore, a political science professor at Drake University, as saying the ad campaign is designed “to change its trade policies toward China by attempting to show White House and Republicans that they’re going to pay a price with the mid-terms.”
This is not the first time that Trump has accused China of interfering in the upcoming midterm elections. He has also accused the country of imposing tariffs on products in states that Trump won during the 2016 election. On Sept. 18, Trump issued two tweets complaining that China’s tariffs are targeting “our farmers, ranchers and industrial workers because of their loyalty to me.”
Trump has complained about China’s public relations campaign against tariffs before. On Aug. 4, the president tweeted that China “is spending a fortune on ads and P.R. trying to convince and scare our politicians to fight me on Tariffs.”
It is worth noting that China Daily is registered as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, since at least 1983.
In its earliest filing available online, China Daily says that part of its agreement with China is to obtain “paid advertisements in the U.S. & Canada for inclusion in the newspaper.” In its most recent filing in May, China Daily reported that it had “advertising campaigns” in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal in the previous six months.
But the paid advertisements, the publicly registered lobbying reports and retaliatory tariffs are all different than the kind of extensive covert election interference that Russia engaged in during the 2016 election.
During the 2016 election, Russian intelligence agents hacked into the email systems of the Democratic Party and its officials, secretly directed the release of the hacked material, and engaged in a social media influence campaign — all “to help President-elect Trump’s election chances,” according to a U.S. intelligence report released in January 2017.
In February, the special counsel’s office investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election indicted three Russian organizations and 13 Russian nationals for conspiring to violate U.S. election laws and defraud the United States. The conspiracy involved using the names of U.S. citizens and entities to illegally buy political ads on social media and stage political rallies. Some defendants also “solicited and compensated real U.S. persons to promote or disparage candidates,” according to the indictment.
In July, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, announced the indictment of 12 members of GRU, a Russian military intelligence agency. The GRU officers “engaged in a sustained effort to hack into the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee, and the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, and released that information on the internet under the names ‘DCLeaks’ and ‘Guccifer 2.0’ and through another entity,” a Justice Department press release says.
It’s not clear if the president has any evidence of a covert operation by China.
At an Aug. 2 briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said “our intelligence shows that there are a number of others that are looking at and considering engaging, particularly in 2018.” But she declined to offer specifics at the time and the White House press office did not answer our questions about Trump’s latest accusation.