WASHINGTON — In a rare show of bipartisan unity, Republicans and Democrats are planning to try to force President Donald Trump to take a more active stand on human rights in China, preparing veto-proof legislation that would punish top Chinese officials for detaining more than 1 million Muslims in internment camps.
The effort comes amid growing congressional frustration with Trump’s unwillingness to challenge China over human rights abuses, despite vivid news reports this year outlining atrocities, or to confront such issues globally.
To press Trump into action on China, lawmakers plan to move ahead with legislation that would punish Beijing for its repression of ethnic Uighur Muslims, with enough supporters to compel the president to sign or risk being overruled by Congress before the 2020 election. A version of the legislation, known as the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, passed both the House and Senate this year, but its path to the White House was stalled this month by a procedural process.
Human rights causes draw rare bipartisan support in Congress, and many Republican lawmakers have broken from Trump on the matter, even as they move in lockstep with the president on nearly every other issue, including defending him against impeachment.
“There’s been a sense by some that the administration hasn’t prioritized human rights in its broader foreign policy,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “I don’t think that’s necessarily accurate — but that sense has grown. There’s been a sense that Congress needs to step up.”
Last month, Congress passed legislation by unanimous consent supporting the Hong Kong protests, forcing Trump to sign the bill. Trump, who had previously said he was “standing with” Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, risked being overruled by Congress and criticized as weak on China if he vetoed the measure. Still, when Trump signed the bill the night before Thanksgiving, he issued a statement saying he would “exercise executive discretion” in enforcing its provisions.
Lawmakers this year also passed legislation recognizing the 1915 killings of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians as a genocide, over the objections of Trump. And it approved a resolution calling for the end of U.S. military support of the war in Yemen, in which a Saudi Arabia-led coalition is bombing civilians. Trump vetoed the measure.
In October, after Trump withdrew U.S. forces just inside Syria’s border, paving the way for a Turkish military operation against Kurdish forces, lawmakers voted to rebuke the administration for the decision and show support for the Kurds, a persecuted group in the Middle East that has fought with U.S. troops against the Islamic State.
In the coming months, Congress is expected to try to pass legislation that would punish Turkey and Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses, though it is unclear whether those efforts would have a veto-proof majority. The effort includes a package of Turkey sanctions sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. The legislation, which would penalize those who commit human rights abuses in Syria, was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December.
Some human rights issues draw greater bipartisan support than others. China hawks have become ascendant across Congress and in the administration, and many Americans increasingly see China as a threat.
Although Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have criticized China on the persecution of Muslims, Trump has said nothing. In July, Jewher Ilham, the daughter of Ilham Tohti, a Uighur professor whom China sentenced to life in prison in 2014, joined other victims of religious persecution to meet with Trump in the Oval Office. When she tried to explain the camps to Trump, he appeared ignorant of the situation and simply said, “That’s tough stuff.”
“It’s hard to find evidence of genuine personal interest,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “On China, at a minimum, President Trump should stop describing an authoritarian, abusive leader as a ‘terrific guy’; doing so gives Chinese authorities the opportunity to choose between that characterization and the far tougher ones offered up by other senior U.S. officials.”
Trump, who has criticized China over its economic practices, has refrained from imposing sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for the camps, for fear of jeopardizing the chances of reaching a trade deal. Many top aides and lawmakers from both parties have pushed for sanctions, but the Treasury Department has opposed the penalties. The Uighur act, which had Rubio and Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., as sponsors, would compel Trump to impose sanctions on Chen Quanguo, the top Communist Party official in Xinjiang, where the camps are.
In October, the Trump administration placed a few Chinese businesses and security organizations on a commercial blacklist because of their suspected roles in Muslim abuses, but many analysts considered that a weak punishment.
Other countries are more complicated. Saudi Arabia has been a traditional U.S. ally; and hawks in Congress, who are generally Republican, argue the Saudis provide a regional bulwark against Iran. And Trump’s positive declarations about President Vladimir Putin of Russia have spurred a gradual shift from the anti-Russia views previously held by Republican politicians, conservative voters and right-wing news organizations.
Trump expresses open admiration for many authoritarian leaders, even those condemned by senior officials in his own administration for some of the world’s worst atrocities. They include Xi; Putin; Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea; Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia; President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey; President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt; Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary; and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil.
“He’s celebrating the leaders who are the worst human rights abusers,” Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., said in an interview. “It almost seems like the president’s support for you is directly proportional to how brutal you are to your citizenry.”
This month, the Trump administration blocked a move by members of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the human rights situation in North Korea for the second year in a row. Trump has expressed warmth for Kim of North Korea and has engaged in personal diplomacy, meeting him at two summits to try, without success, to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
“The Trump administration has sent a clear message to Pyongyang and to the rest of the world that this administration doesn’t consider starvation, torture, summary executions and a host of other crimes to be a priority,” said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.
On other prominent issues this year, Trump used his executive power to reject measures that would have either punished countries for human rights abuses or simply affirmed the abuses were happening.
Trump vetoed a bipartisan resolution that would have punished Saudi Arabia for its air war in Yemen and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and permanent U.S. resident. Khashoggi’s death last year — a grisly killing that U.S. intelligence officials have said was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed — reignited a long-simmering effort among a small group of lawmakers to cut off U.S. support for Saudi-led bombings in Yemen that have helped create the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis.
Four of the six vetoes Trump has issued in his presidency overturned legislative attempts to penalize the kingdom. In May, Trump and Pompeo sparked bipartisan fury by declaring an emergency over Iran that allowed the United States to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, bypassing a congressional hold on the sales. This fall, in closed-door negotiations, the White House blocked similar language from making it into the final version of the annual defense policy bill, a must-pass package of legislation.
“I’m a big fan of the president on many fronts, but on this, someone has to stand up,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. and a proponent of withdrawing the United States from wars, said in a floor speech in June before voting to cut off arm sales to the kingdom.
In another recent instance that privately confounded Republican lawmakers, the White House recruited multiple Republican senators to block attempts to pass legislation formally recognizing the Armenian genocide. The administration argued the timing of the bill would upend diplomatic relations with Turkey, including when Trump received Erdogan at the White House in November. Trump insisted on holding that meeting over the objections of some Republicans who have criticized Turkey, a NATO ally, for attacking the Kurds in Syria.
The legislation finally passed this month, days after the Senate advanced a package of sanctions related to Erdogan’s invasion of northern Syria and his purchase of a sophisticated Russian surface-to-air missile system.