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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In an Oval Office interview on Friday afternoon, President Trump told me that he held off on imposing Treasury sanctions against Chinese officials involved with the Xinjiang mass detention camps because doing so would have interfered with his trade deal with Beijing.

Driving the news: Asked why he hadn't yet enacted Treasury sanctions against Chinese Communist Party officials or entities tied to the camps where the Chinese government detains Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, Trump replied, "Well, we were in the middle of a major trade deal."

  • "And I made a great deal, $250 billion potentially worth of purchases. And by the way, they're buying a lot, you probably have seen."
  • Trump continued: "And when you're in the middle of a negotiation and then all of a sudden you start throwing additional sanctions on — we've done a lot. I put tariffs on China, which are far worse than any sanction you can think of."

The big picture: China hawks in the Trump administration have privately expressed frustration that the president hasn't used the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction Chinese officials for what many consider one of the worst human rights atrocities of this era.

Between the lines: But that new law is Congress' attempt to pressure Trump to enact sanctions. Trump already had all the authority he needed to sanction China for the camps. Congress passed the Global Magnitsky Act in 2016 — a law designed to counter human rights violations like those being committed in Xinjiang, where witnesses say the Chinese government imprisons, brainwashes, and tortures ethnic and religious minorities.

  • China hawks in Congress, such as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, have repeatedly urged the Trump administration to sanction Chinese officials connected to the Xinjiang mass detention camps.

But in Friday's interview with Axios, Trump said: "When you say the Magnitsky Act, just so you know, nobody's mentioned it specifically to me with regard to China."

  • "If somebody asked me, I would take a look at it," he continued. "But nobody's asked me. I have not been spoken to about the Magnitsky Act. So if somebody asks me about it, I'd study it. But at this moment, they have not asked me about it."
  • In his book, John Bolton writes that Trump gave President Xi a green light to continue with the Xinjiang camps — an allegation Trump denies.

The other side: While the Treasury Department hasn't taken action with Magnitsky sanctions — which would allow the U.S. government to take harsh measures such as seizing the U.S. dollar assets of targeted Chinese officials — other departments of the Trump administration have taken concrete steps to penalize China for the human rights crisis in Xinjiang.

  • Since September 2019, the Commerce Department and the State Department have imposed export restrictions on a total of 21 Chinese government entities and 16 Chinese companies deemed complicit in the abuses in Xinjiang.
  • And the State Department has imposed visa restrictions on Chinese Communist Party officials deemed responsible for the abuse of Uighurs. Additionally, the U.S. has taken minor steps to stop the import of goods produced by Uighur forced labor.
  • A senior administration said he believes the U.S. government is the only government in the world that has imposed actual costs on China for the Xinjiang situation.

I also asked President Trump whether — as Bolton charges — he asked President Xi to increase China's farm purchases from the U.S. to help Trump win in 2020. Bolton claims Trump made the request when the leaders met in Buenos Aires in December 2018.

  • "No, not at all," Trump said. "What I told everybody we deal with — not just President Xi — I want them to do business with this country. I want them to do a lot more business with this country."
  • "By the way, what's good for the country is good for me," Trump continued. "What's good for the country is also good for an election."
  • "But I don't go around saying, 'Oh, help me with my election.' Why would I say that?"
  • "And remember, when I'm dealing with him, the whole room is loaded up with people. We're in a large room with many people in that room. I wouldn't want to say a thing like that. I don't even know if that would be wrong because, you know, but why would I say a thing like that? And I certainly wouldn't say it anyway, but I certainly wouldn't say it in a room full of people."

Go deeper

The U.S.-China split in space

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

China and the U.S. don't collaborate in space —a decades-old divide that is shaping the future of both nations' space programs.

Why it matters: U.S. semiconductor companies and those in other sectors are under pressure — from politicians and consumers — to become less reliant on China. The record of the nations' parallel ambitions in space shows what the U.S. gains and loses when it cuts China off.

8 hours ago - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.