One of the White House press secretary's important jobs on foreign trips is to ensure the countries the president is visiting do not censor the free press. Sarah Sanders willingly let China do it.
Donald Trump’s Asian tour has been marked with bizarre and humiliating episodes, from Trump remarking he only just learned how many countries there are, to giving out signed “Donald & Shinzo” hats, to boasting about how he turned down a “fancy lunch” to eat with U.S. troops in South Korea.
But in China, Trump and his team have once again managed to outdo themselves in humiliating America.
On Wednesday, Trump declined to take any questions from reporters. When press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked why press access had been curtailed, she explained that China had requested it:
Asked why President Trump didn’t take questions from reporters today, Sarah Sanders said, “It was at the Chinese insistence there were no questions today.”
— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) November 9, 2017
This revelation instantly set off outrage among both national journalists and veteran White House staff from former administrations:
China isn’t supposed to have a say about press access. Previous press secs used to fight with Chinese counterparts for press access when in China. Witnessed personally. https://t.co/IWMgOoy7ZB
— Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) November 9, 2017
I️ worked at the White House for President Bush. China regularly insisted on “no questions” during our travel there. Our WH team fought for greater press access, including questions. https://t.co/vDh0AgZ8cB
— Brad Dayspring (@BDayspring) November 9, 2017
While China is a massively important economic and military partner of the United States, its government’s long history of repressing journalists and free expression is a constant matter of international controversy. The country ranks near the bottom on press freedom indices, censors the Internet, and systematically arrests journalists.
Out of geopolitical necessity, most major countries refrain from criticizing or sanctioning China’s repression. But one of the very few ways America has resisted Chinese censorship is to block them from dictating the terms of covering diplomatic visits by the president. Sanders is declining to do even this.
In fact, Trump — who has done a comical about-face on whether China is manipulating our economy — has lately engaged in attacks on the media that would make any Chinese Communist Party censor proud. This week, reports showed Trump’s Justice Department is moving to punish CNN for critical coverage of his presidency, demanding parent company Time Warner sell off the media organization before approving a merger with AT&T.
There is a difference between toeing a diplomatic line on China’s violation of basic freedoms, and endorsing them. Trump and his administration have veered dangerously into the latter — and further damaged our standing in the global battle for human rights.