WASHINGTON — President Trump refused to commit Friday to signing legislation overwhelmingly passed by Congress to support pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, saying that he supported the protesters but that President Xi Jinping of China was “a friend of mine.”
The bill comes as Mr. Trump is trying to strike a trade deal with China, one of the central goals of his presidency. It puts him the delicate position of trying to balance a tricky trade negotiation with China and congressional demands for action to support the pro-democracy protests.
“I stand with Hong Kong,” he said during a nearly hourlong interview on the morning program “Fox & Friends.” “I stand with freedom. I stand with all of the things we want to do. But we’re also in the process of making the largest trade deal in history.”
He claimed that China’s government would have “obliterated” Hong Kong and killed “thousands” of people there were it not for him.
Mr. Trump also spoke warmly about Mr. Xi.
“He is a friend of mine. He is an incredible guy,” Mr. Trump said.
Security forces in Hong Kong have escalated their crackdown on pro-democracy protesters this month, prompting Congress this week to approve a Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act it had been considering for months.
The legislation would impose sanctions on Chinese officials who commit human rights abuses in the semiautonomous island territory and place Hong Kong’s special economic status under greater scrutiny.
The bill comes at a delicate time in United States-China relations. Mr. Trump’s trade negotiations with Beijing have stalled before an important Dec. 15 deadline, when the president must decide whether to issue yet more tariffs on Chinese goods.
The president announced on Oct. 11 that he had reached a trade agreement with China, but in the weeks since the two countries have continued to spar over its terms. Chinese negotiators insist that Mr. Trump must roll back more of the tariffs he has placed on more than $360 billion of their products, while American negotiators say China’s concessions still fall short.
In the interview, Mr. Trump credited his trade negotiation with Mr. Xi as the reason that China had not already extinguished the protests with a sweeping and violent crackdown.
“If it weren’t for me, Hong Kong would have been obliterated in 14 minutes,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Trump has typically avoided addressing the escalating battle between pro-democracy demonstrators and security forces in Hong Kong, and in June, he privately assured the Chinese president that he would not publicly back the protesters as long as trade talks were progressing.
At times, Mr. Trump and other administration officials have warned that increasing violence from the Chinese authorities would have wider repercussions in the relationship between Washington and Beijing, including in the trade talks.
Analysts say there are many reasons China’s government has refrained from an all-out violent crackdown like the one that snuffed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. They include the risk of an enormous international backlash and lasting damage to Hong Kong’s powerhouse economy.
If Mr. Trump decides not to sign the legislation on Hong Kong, it will still probably pass into law.
Congress approved the bill with an overwhelming majority, meaning that it could easily overcome a presidential veto, in what would be the first override of Mr. Trump’s presidency. Mr. Trump could also choose not to sign the bill without vetoing it, in which case it would become law on Dec. 3.
Either course of action is likely to generate significant blowback from members of Congress who have urged the president to take a tough stance on China, including Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican of Florida and a sponsor of the bill in the Senate.
Speaking on CNBC on Thursday, Mr. Rubio said his understanding was that the president would sign it. “There was a unanimous vote in the Senate and only one vote against it in the House,” Mr. Rubio said.
But Mr. Trump has twice declined to say whether he would support the legislation when questioned this week. And at times he has responded to personal requests from Mr. Xi by offering concessions that have angered Mr. Rubio and other China critics in Congress.
In May 2018, Mr. Trump tweeted that he was working with Mr. Xi to give ZTE, a Chinese company the United States had punished for violating Iran sanctions, “a way to get back into business.” His administration has also repeatedly waived tough measures on the Chinese telecom firm Huawei, against the urging of Mr. Rubio and others lawmakers.
Mr. Trump’s interview on Friday provoked a swift response from some who have encouraged the president’s tough trade posture on China.
“If he does veto this bill, sacrificing American values in the process, Congress should immediately and overwhelmingly override,” said Scott Paul, the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, which represents steel companies and workers.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, took aim on Friday at Mr. Trump’s stance, suggesting that he was deferring to Mr. Xi at the expense of human rights.
“Make no mistake: President Trump’s words today do not reflect what the American people or the Congress think about President Xi’s oppressive policies toward the people of Hong Kong,” he said. “For a guy who promised to be tough on China, President Trump’s reliable deference to President Xi is all the more bewildering.”
In a news conference on Thursday, Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said China condemned and opposed the passage of the bill.
“We urge the U.S. to grasp the situation, stop its wrongdoing before it’s too late, and take measures to prevent this act from becoming law,” he said. “China will have to take strong countermeasures if the U.S. is bent on having its own way.”