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Trump accuses China of trying to interfere in midterm elections

US President Trump told the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday that the Chinese "do not want me or us to win, because I am the first president to ever challenge China on trade." Photo: The New York Times

US President Donald Trump accused China of trying to interfere in upcoming US midterm elections because of the hard line he has taken on trade, airing the claim as he opened Wednesday's meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York.

"Regrettably, we found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election — coming up in November — against my administration," Trump said.

He offered no details or proof to support that assertion. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi — who seemed to be stifling a yawn as he sat nearby — was seen casting a sidelong glance at Trump and shrugging his shoulders.

Wang responded to Trump's remarks at the end of his own statement to the Security Council, saying, "We do not and will not interfere in any country's domestic affairs. We refuse to accept any unwarranted accusations against China.

"China has all along followed the principle of non-interference in other countries' domestic affairs. This is a tradition of Chinese foreign policy," said Wang. "We call upon other countries to also observe the purposes of the UN charter and not to interfere in other countries' internal affairs."

His remarks on China also raised questions about whether Trump was seeking to deflect attention from his other troubles or whether he genuinely fears for Republican prospects in November.

The accusation was a discordant note in the Security Council session that was supposed to be devoted to the threat of weapons of mass destruction. And it was at odds with Trump's repeated claims that he has a thriving relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who presumably has had a strong hand in the retaliatory actions taken by Beijing.

Yet Trump did not back down. Later in the day, Trump held a news conference in which he said that the accusation "didn't come out of nowhere," and "We have evidence. We have evidence. It will come out."

"They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president to ever challenge China on trade, and we are winning on trade," Trump continued. "We are winning at every level."

A senior administration official on Wednesday sought to further flesh out Trump's allegation that China "has been attempting to interfere" in the 2018 midterm elections, but offered no concrete evidence to back up the president's claim. None of the activities the official described rose to the level of Russia's coordinated campaign to influence voters in 2016 in support of Trump's candidacy.

Instead, the official lumped in longstanding practices of the Chinese government and reiterated the administration's belief that Chinese tariffs targeting regions in the United States that supported the president in 2016 amount to election interference.

The official described a "whole of government approach using political, economic, commercial and informational tools to benefit the interests of the Chinese Communist Party" and insisted that these activities "go way beyond how normal countries interact with one another."

"The activities have reached an unacceptable level," the official said on an official White House briefing call set up on condition of anonymity.

US intelligence officials have stated previously that nations like China or Iran may work to interfere in the midterm elections using a playbook established by Russia during the 2016 presidential contest.

China and the United States have escalated their trade dispute in recent weeks, with Trump imposing tariffs on an additional $200 billion in Chinese exports to the United States, and China striking back with tariffs on $60 billion in American goods.

In its early rounds of tariffs, China hit agricultural products, drawing an outcry from farm groups across the United States and consternation in many of the Midwestern and Plains states that Trump carried in 2016.

The United States is now making increasingly clear that it regards China as another threat to American democracy and freedom, alongside Russia, North Korea and Iran.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that America's intelligence community, as well as the FBI and others, are working on countering what he calls "malintent".

Administration officials believe that the Chinese are particularly skilled in dark cyber arts, up to and including the intimidation of all opposition. In their view, that extends to targeting Chinese students and teachers in the United States who simply make clear they are enjoying their experiences.

The White House is now alleging that China has crossed a line into outright interference in America's democratic process too, attempting to turn Donald Trump's key supporters, including farmers, against him.

But in the midst of a spreading trade war between the two powers, the Chinese reject all this as baseless nonsense, insisting that's it's quite right they should be allowed to argue the benefits of US-China trade.

This is not the first time Trump has accused China of what he calls election interference. One week ago, he said in a tweet, "China has openly stated that they are actively trying to impact and change our election by attacking our farmers, ranchers and industrial workers because of their loyalty to me."

The president has also said that he wants the American public to pay more attention to China. One month ago, he tweeted, "All of the fools that are so focused on looking only at Russia should start also looking in another direction, China."

Trump's remarks at the Security Council meeting followed a similar pattern to his speech before the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, when he alternately attacked China and praised its leader Xi.

After accusing China of seeking to undermine his administration, Trump said it "has been a pleasure and an honor" to work with Xi, along with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in attempts to broker peace on the Korean Peninsula.

On Tuesday, Trump had extended "special thanks" to Xi for support of US efforts to get North Korea to commit to denuclearization. But in that speech, too, he also called out China for its economic practices.

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