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The inside story on Trump's confrontation with Beijing

In his new book just released today, Washington Post foreign policy columnist Josh Rogin reveals the White House drama behind major Trump-era headlines on China.

Why it matters: At the beginning of the Trump administration, observers speculated that Trump's affinity for billionaires and dictators, and his lack of interest in human rights, could result in him selling out U.S. security and values for a deal with Beijing. That didn't happen — but Rogin shows how easily it could have.


Details: Rogin's book, "Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century," traces the trajectory of the Trump administration's policy toward China, which in the early months swung between accommodation and confrontation.

  • The book provides new insider details for some of the top headlines of the era, including Trump's phone call with the Taiwanese president, his short-lived push to have Guo Wengui deported to China, and a fateful February 2020 phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Between the lines: The account is based on extensive interviews with numerous former administration officials, especially former White House adviser Steve Bannon, deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger and former National Security Council China director Matt Turpin.

The intrigue: Trump sometimes cast a wrench into the plans of his own officials who were hawkish on China, especially in the first two years of the administration, and he often mixed "national security and economic deal-making to Beijing's advantage," Rogin writes.

  • Taiwan: Though many of Trump's advisers were longtime Taiwan supporters, Trump himself was not. "Taiwan is like two feet from China," Trump told a U.S. senator, according to Rogin's account. "We are 8,000 miles away. If they invade, there isn't a f**king thing we can do about it."
  • Huawei: Though the U.S. national security community warned that the Chinese telecommunications company was a security threat, Trump repeatedly offered to include Huawei in trade talks.
  • Guo Wengui: China's leaders tried to convince Trump to deport the exiled Chinese tycoon, who was based in the U.S. where he became an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party, by sending casino magnate Steve Wynn to Trump with a dossier that presented Guo as a rapist. After Trump told Bannon "we've got to get the rapist," Pottinger ran over to the West Wing to convince Trump to relent.
  • COVID-19: In a Feb. 6, 2020, phone call, Xi told Trump that the coronavirus pandemic would fade away when warmer weather arrived — an incorrect assessment that Trump would soon repeat publicly.

The big picture: Leaders in both the U.S. and China made major tactical errors over the past four years.

  • The Trump administration mistreated allies and made "damaging unforced errors," Rogin writes. The result was that this "new era of naked competition with China is now seen by many as a spat between the United States and China, rather than an international response to China's actions as it rises."
  • China's leaders, for their part, "misinterpreted and misunderstood Trump and his administration egregiously and constantly from the start," repeatedly reaching "wrong conclusions both about Trump and about how his administration worked."

What to watch: The Biden administration is trying to repair some of Trump's "unforced errors" and convince the rest of the democratic world that China's growing superpower status isn't just a narrow U.S. concern.

Go deeper: Trump's U.S.-China transformation

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