(Originally published here on February 17, 2020 by South China Morning Post.)
Asserting that Donald Trump feels a strong kinship with strongmen like Chinese President Xi Jinping used to be something of a rhetorical exercise.
The assertion would be made to jolt those closest to Trump and also, with an overall sense of allegiance to the default positions of traditional American foreign policy intact, to check the US president’s royalist impulses.
Trump’s defenders would then dismiss his antics – fawning over Russia’s Vladimir Putin, sword dances with Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, chummy summitry with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and calling Xi a “good friend” – as his way of making his enemies, including America’s foreign policy elites, squirm.
But after last week’s dust-up over the Roger Stone case, it’s difficult for anyone to deny that Trump would like to elevate the White House from one-third of the federal government to an imperial palace.
Following Trump’s charge that his friend and associate Stone hadn’t been treated fairly by the Justice Department, Attorney General William Barr moved to overrule his own prosecutors and revise the sentencing recommendation for Stone – sparking a backlash of unprecedented proportions.
Why? Claims about American exceptionalism that we hear from Washington and on campaign trails throughout the country are predicated on the expectation that American justice is both transparent and free of political influence.
The ruling Republican Party can abide by cuts in taxes and social benefits, but giving the US president carte blanche to direct judicial outcomes is a bridge too far.
And some of the loudest voices in the party, including senators Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley, routinely savage the Chinese government for its authoritarian structure, including arbitrary and opaque justice.
It is true that the Communist Party controls China’s judiciary. Moreover, the party is now more beholden than any time since the Cultural Revolution to the man at the top of the hierarchy.
So in this respect, Trump’s public comments and the Republican Party’s acquiescence have bumped the US Justice Department into closer alignment with Beijing’s model.
But even in Xi’s era, despite pundits’ claims that China is reverting to Cultural Revolution-era thinking, Beijing has, at least in one way, moved closer to Washington’s judicial norms.
Recognising that China can’t be a global economic leader without a strong and innovative IT sector, the Chinese government has set up a court system that adjudicates commercial and intellectual property disputes, one that has been recognised by outside trade experts as a point of progress in Beijing’s bid to modernise its economy.
While China has carved out a largely apolitical space to adjudicate these matters, Trump has done the opposite. In his mind, every matter before a judge in the US is potentially political, and he is therefore the final arbiter of who faces judicial scrutiny and to what degree.
This is also why Trump has been more of an enemy than a friend to Amazon and the titans of Silicon Valley. He isn’t interested in protecting consumers, he just resents the tech companies’ political clout and wants to undercut them.
It’s no coincidence that the Justice Department opened a broad antitrust review of Facebook, Google and Amazon after Trump began attacking these companies.
Without providing any evidence, Trump blamed companies like Facebook and Google for skewing search results against him, and accused Amazon of benefiting too much from its agreement with the US Postal Service.
Meanwhile, from a regulatory standpoint, the Trump-friendly fossil fuel industry has gone from strength to strength under the his administration.
Trump’s wish to bring the American justice system more in line with his world view has made his party more uncomfortable than at any time since he assumed office because what he wants for the Justice Department is not business friendly.
China should watch closely because Trump is Beijing’s best friend in Washington at a time when anti-Chinese fervour is boiling in both parties. If a Trump emboldened by the recent impeachment acquittal continues to violate judicial norms, the backlash against Barr might grow in scope and harm Trump’s re-election chances.
Then Xi would no longer have a good friend willing to get the US Trade Representative and Commerce Department to cut China some slack.