AILSA CHANG, HOST:
President Trump offered a show of support this evening for pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. The president signed a pro-Hong Kong bill that the Chinese government had warned would be seen as meddling in its domestic affairs. Even as he signed the bill, though, Trump offered a conciliatory message to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump is trying to avoid upsetting trade talks with Beijing right now, which have reached a delicate stage. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So just a few days ago, President Trump was pretty noncommittal on whether he would sign this legislation. What's changed?
HORSLEY: You know, it's pretty clear this bill was going to become law with or without the president's signature. It passed the Senate unanimously. I think there was a single no-vote in the House, so Congress was really overwhelming in its support for the democracy movement in Hong Kong. And Trump decided it was better to be on that train than under it. So he went ahead. He signed the bill, but he also reiterated his respect for Xi Jinping, just as he had done last week, when he was asked about the Hong Kong bill in an interview with Fox News. Here's what he said on Friday.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I'm also standing with President Xi. He's a friend of mine. He's an incredible guy.
HORSLEY: So since then, you've had local...
CHANG: He kind of wants it both ways.
HORSLEY: Yeah. He's really trying to walk this fine line. We've had local elections in the interim in Hong Kong, and the pro-democracy forces won a big victory. In his statement this evening, the president said he hopes the leaders of Hong Kong and mainland China can settle their differences amicably.
CHANG: All right, so we just heard President Trump call Xi Jinping a friend. He's also a negotiating partner with some pretty high-stakes trade talks on the line. So how do you think signing this pro-Hong Kong bill will affect the ongoing trade talks?
HORSLEY: Trump acknowledged last week that Hong Kong could be a complicating factor in those trade negotiations, but he's really trying hard not to alienate President Xi to the point where he might just walk away from the table. For weeks now, the U.S. and China have been trying to broker a limited trade deal in which China would buy some extra soybeans and other farm goods from the U.S. In exchange, they'd get some limited tariff relief from President Trump. Earlier this week, the two sides had a phone call, but actually nailing down an agreement has been really elusive.
HORSLEY: And there is a deadline looming in less than three weeks. The Trump administration has threatened to impose tariffs on another $160 billion worth of Chinese imports, including a lot of popular consumer items if there's no agreement struck by December 15.
CHANG: I am curious, though. A lot of this Hong Kong bill seems symbolic. What is the practical effect of this legislation?
HORSLEY: You know, the practical effect's not entirely clear. The bill says the State Department has to report each year on whether China is living up to the promises it made back in 1997 that it would preserve Hong Kong's autonomy. If Beijing is seen as falling short, the administration could strip Hong Kong of its special trading status, so it is a cudgel the administration could use to go after China. But it also gives the president a lot of leeway. And Trump underscored that in his signing statement this evening, saying he would ignore any part of this bill that he sees as compromising his constitutional powers to conduct foreign policy the way he wants to.
HORSLEY: You know, Trump has argued that his friendship with Xi has actually been good for Hong Kong, that it's helped to head off a tougher crackdown on the pro-democracy forces. The bill does authorize sanctions against Chinese officials if they do carry out a crackdown in Hong Kong. And President Trump also signed a separate bill this evening that bars the U.S. from selling things to the Hong Kong police, like tear gas and rubber bullets.
CHANG: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.
Thank you, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.