WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump welcomed China’s leader Xi Jinping to his Mar-a-Lago estate Thursday for a two-day summit on trade and North Korean relations, he faced a foreign policy challenge on a second front following the apparent Syrian government chemical attack on its own citizens.
Trump said he is weighing retaliation against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the suspected chemical bomb, which claimed children among its civilian casualties.
“What happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity,” he said en route to Palm Beach, Florida, adding of Assad, “I guess he’s running things, so I guess something should happen.”
Trump would not say how the United States would respond, but White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the president had been presented with several options.
Spicer indicated that despite the empathy Trump has expressed recently for victims of the Syrian civil war, his position on secure borders would not soon change. Trump through two executive actions has sought to temporarily ban from entry into the United States nationals of some Muslim-majority countries and refugees, including Syrians.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re always doing what we can to protect our nation,” Spicer said. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t support efforts like safe zones throughout Syria to make sure we do what we can for their people.”
Meanwhile, the press secretary hedged on whether Trump and Xi would discuss climate change or human rights — two areas where China has faced condemnation from the West.
Trump predicted the meeting would result in a blueprint for more equitable trade relations as well as China “stepping up” as a counterweight to North Korea for its missile testing.
“We have been treated unfairly and have made terrible trade deals with China for many, many years,” Trump told reporters Thursday in a toned-down variation of the criticism he had aimed at Chinese economic practices while campaigning.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters separately in Palm Beach, “Whether it’s using their authority on the UN Security Council or utilizing new levers of power, China can be part of a new strategy to end North Korea’s reckless behavior.”
Earlier this week, a senior White House official speaking on the condition of anonymity said it’s “safe to say” Trump and Xi would not be golfing together.
China as a Communist country has a complicated history with golf, which it generally views as an elitist hobby.