President Donald Trump made it obvious for weeks that he did not want to signal support for those in Hong Kong who are demonstrating in the name of political liberty.
On Aug. 1, Trump told reporters: “Something is probably happening with Hong Kong, because when you look at, you know, what’s going on, they’ve had riots for a long period of time."
"That's between Hong Kong [and] China," he said, and thus an internal matter for China to resolve. "They'll have to deal with that themselves. They don't need advice."
It was not lost on Beijing that the word riot echoed China's rhetoric. A newspaper published by China's Communist Party ran a headline, "Trump Tells Truth about HK Riot."
For this, Trump cannot be accused of inconsistency.
As a private citizen in 1990, the real estate heir told Playboy Magazine in the wake of the notorious Beijing crackdown: "When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak … as being spit on by the rest of the world … "
Now some Hong Kong protesters are waving American flags, and China has accused the United States of provoking the demonstrations.
Once again, Trump positions himself at odds with his own party in Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned Monday that a violent crackdown in Hong Kong would be “completely unacceptable."
McConnell said: “The people of Hong Kong are bravely standing up to the Chinese Communist Party as Beijing tries to encroach on their autonomy and freedom.”
Similar statements came from Democrats. But more significantly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke more sternly than his boss. We know after nearly three years that the president and his cabinet secretaries can end up on different pages.
Pompeo's State Department on Tuesday urged, "all sides to exercise restraint," and called the United States "staunch in our support for freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in Hong Kong."
McConnell's Senate GOP and Trump's own appointees thus sound more serious on international human rights than the President.
Similar contrasts have come up regarding Russia, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.
There is a certain logic to Trump's posture. The concept of the United States "exporting democracy" in recent years lost its appeal after the Iraq embroilment. Certainly many Americans support Trump swearing off such policies as "nation building."
Still, his critics suspect that Trump might actually be giving China his OK to squash the Hong Kong rebellion while the two superpowers try to bargain on trade.
For some reason, he saw fit on Tuesday to tweet: "“Our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong.
"Everyone should be calm and safe!”
It was not clear whom Trump was reassuring.