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

Oct 26, 2020 - World

China to sanction Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon over Taiwan arms sales

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen during a visit to Penghu Air Force Base. Photo: Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

China plans to impose unspecified sanctions on Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and other U.S. companies involved in weapons sales to Taiwan, Reuters reports, citing a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

Why it matters: The Trump administration last week notified Congress of an additional $1.8 billion in proposed arms sales to Taiwan. China's recent military exercises and the buildup of forces along its southeastern coast have renewed fears of an invasion of Taiwan, which Beijing views as a breakaway province that must be brought under its control.

Apple lobbied Congress on bill targeting Uighur slave labor in China

A banner hung by protesters in a Hong Kong mall. The protesters demonstrated against alleged workers' rights violations at the factories that produce Apple products, September 2011. Photo: Felix Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

Apple paid an outside firm to lobby Congress on legislation targeting American companies working in areas in China that may use forced labor, The Information first reported. It remains unclear whether Apple lobbied against or for the bill.

Why it matters: Apple has faced scrutiny over the years regarding the human impact behind the manufacturing of its popular products.

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
Oct 27, 2020 - Economy & Business

The U.S.-China cold war is coming to financial markets

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Ant Group's $34.5 billion IPO will make the Chinese fintech company the largest listing ever, and its choice to list its shares in Hong Kong and Shanghai rather than New York City marks a pivotal moment that could see the financial industry move towards China.

Why it matters: "This was the first time such a big listing, the largest in human history, was priced outside New York City," Ant Group founder Jack Ma told the Bund Summit in Shanghai Saturday. "We wouldn’t have dared to think about it five years, or even three years ago."