Updated Apr 12, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump 2020 plan: Hit Biden as "soft" on China

Illustrated collage of President Trump and Joe Biden against the Chinese flag.

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Samuel Corum/Getty Images and Sean Rayford/Getty Images

The Trump campaign is planning to make Joe Biden's posture toward China one of its major lines of attack during the 2020 campaign, top officials tell Axios.

Why it matters: The politics surrounding the U.S. relationship with China may become a bigger domestic issue in this campaign than in any presidential contest in the last half-century.

  • Trump officials had long been planning to brand Biden as "soft" on China, but the coronavirus pandemic — which epidemiologists trace to an animal market in Wuhan — has stoked public anger toward Beijing and made the attack more resonant in polling.

What they're saying: John McLaughlin, a Trump campaign pollster, said, "China is among many weaknesses for Joe Biden, but when people learn about Biden's attack on the president's China travel ban, his other weak positions on China, and his conflict with Hunter Biden's business deal with China, voters are horrified."

  • Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, added, "Joe Biden has openly stated numerous times that China isn't an economic threat to be taken seriously, which is either willful blindness or ineptitude."
  • "And his son Hunter's firm was infused with Chinese money while his father was the vice president. You'd better believe voters will hear about that."

Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates hit back: "Donald Trump comprehensively failed our nation with respect to the deadliest public health crisis in over 100 years, and in no small part because he disregarded warnings from a multitude of U.S. experts and bought China's spin about successful containment, all while downplaying the threat."

  • "Now our country is paying an indescribable price for his malfeasance. Who publicly urged him not to take China's word on this? Joe Biden. And beforehand, Trump even axed a program we strongly supported, literally called 'Predict,' which monitored for potential pandemics — including coronaviruses and including in China."
  • "He'll be forced to reckon with all of this constantly. Donald Trump highlighting China is like the owner of a propane depot saying, 'I can't wait to play with fireworks.'"

Between the lines: In the past few days, the first signs emerged of the Trump campaign acting on its internal polling data.

  • The campaign released a controversial new digital ad on Thursday bashing Biden as overly friendly and deferential to Beijing.
  • The ad also portrayed Biden as compromised because his son Hunter had lucrative business dealings in China and accompanied his father, who was then vice president, on a trip to China.
  • Fact check: CNN has an extensive fact-check of the ad's claims here, including the ad's inclusion of a clip of Biden with former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, who is a third-generation Chinese American, not a Chinese official.

And on Saturday, the Trump campaign released a fundraising email from Donald J. Trump, with the pitch: "You'll never hear it from the Fake News media, but I am TOUGH ON CHINA and Sleepy Joe Biden is WEAK ON CHINA. ... That's why I'm calling on YOU to stand with me against Sleepy Joe’s corrupt China First, America Last Agenda by contributing to our critical America First Fund."

The big picture: Biden opened himself to attacks on China during this campaign when he said China was "not competition" for the United States — a comment that drew criticism from both Democrats and Republicans.

  • His son Hunter did have business dealings in China — and did accompany Biden on a trip there in 2013 — though there is no evidence that he made anything close to the sums of money from his dealings that Trump has suggested he did.

The bottom line: While Trump officials say they're already seeing signs that the Biden-China attacks resonate with voters, they'll inevitably have to contend with Trump's own public statements if they pursue this line of attack.

  • Trump has lavished praise upon President Xi Jinping throughout his presidency and, in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, even praised China's response to the virus.
  • Biden allies have also foreshadowed that if Trump goes after Hunter, they will go after Trump's children's international business dealings.
  • Donald Trump Jr. has challenged Hunter Biden to a debate over who has benefited more financially from their father's government service.
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