WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Tuesday he signed legislation that would slap sanctions on Chinese officials who undermine the autonomy of Hong Kong, the latest step in the administration's increasingly confrontational posture toward Beijing.
But the president's official remarks in the Rose Garden quickly turned political as he offered an extended critique of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and the Obama administration's trade policies.
"If we listened to Joe Biden, hundreds of thousands of additional lives would have been lost" to the coronavirus, Trump claimed without evidence.
Trump's remarks, which focused far more on Biden than on Hong Kong, came as the president has slid in national polling and has seen slipping support in battleground states he won in 2016, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The president, who made trade with China a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, argued that the Obama administration "freely allowed China to pillage our factories."
Biden campaign spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield said taxpayers should be reimbursed for the "abuse of funds" from the event.
“Today’s statement that was ostensibly supposed to be about China, but there was one topic that President Trump couldn’t seem to get off his mind: Joe Biden, whose name the president invoked nearly 30 times," she said. "The whole sad affair says more about Donald Trump than he said about any particular topic."
Trump's remarks was only the latest instance in which the president has veered heavily into presidential politics during an official event.
"I can’t believe this," political analyst Stuart Rothenberg posted on Twitter. "This is a campaign event from the White House."
U.S. relations with China have deteriorated as the president has hammered at Beijing's response to the coronavirus, repeatedly asserting the country failed to warn the world about the severity of the disease that expert say originated in Wuhan. The virus has added a new layer of tensions on top of the trade war that erupted in 2018.
"We hold China fully responsible for concealing the virus and unleashing it on the world," Trump said during remarks in the Rose Garden announcing the decision.
The president's remarks on the sanctions bill quickly turned political, with Trump offering an extended critique of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
Trump has claimed his "phase one" trade agreement with China announced in January remains in place, though the country is falling short of its goals to purchase U.S. goods and Washington has left in place sanctions on billions of dollars in Chinese goods.
The president said he also signed an executive order ending preferential trade treatment for Hong Kong.
China slapped sanctions on four U.S. officials this week in response to penalties the Trump administration imposed on Chinese officials it says are responsible for the persecution of Muslim Uighur minorities in China's Xinjiang province.
Hours later, the Trump administration rejected nearly all of China's maritime claims in the South China Sea and accused Beijing of "bullying" its neighbors.
But even as his administration has taken an increasingly aggressive tone with China, Trump has been reluctant to weigh in on the crackdown of Hong Kong. Last month, he announced he would "begin the process" of ending Washington's special relationship with Hong Kong, which grants the region sweeping trade advantages.
China began imposing its national security law this month, dismissing international pressure to preserve Hong Kong's semi-autonomous status and its separate legal, political and economic framework, in place since 1997 when the United Kingdom turned over the administration of the city to China. That policy had enshrined freedoms of speech, press, assembly and an independent judiciary for residents of Hong Kong.
Chinese officials have defended the new law as necessary to preserve national security and protect Hong Kong's prosperity, but critics say it is aimed at snuffing out pro-democracy protests that have roiled Hong Kong for months.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, advanced bipartisan legislation to slap stiff penalties on China for undermining Hong Kong's autonomy. The measure imposes sanctions on Chinese officials that help implement the national security law, which criminalizes subversion and other forms of dissent and allows Hong Kong residents to be extradited to China for trial.
Contributing: Nicholas Wu, Deirdre Shesgreen
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump signed Hong Kong sanctions bill amid tensions with China