Donald Trump has accused China of seeking to interfere in US congressional elections in November, using his chairmanship of the UN security council to spring a surprise on his fellow world leaders.
But administration officials – who also appeared to have been taken unaware by the allegation – were able to give few supporting details, and the unexpected move did little to obscure Trump’s isolation at the UN over his Iran policies.
At the start of Wednesday’s meeting – whose ostensible purpose was to discuss the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – Trump said: “China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election.”
The US president did not mention Russia, which US intelligence agencies say interfered in Trump’s favour during the 2016 presidential elections – and see as the prime outside threat to the 2018 midterm vote in November.
Trump has long rejected that conclusion, and instead portrayed himself as a victim of election meddling, this time from Beijing.
“They don’t want me or us to win because I am the first president to ever challenge China on trade,” Trump said. “We don’t want them to interfere in our upcoming election.”
When his turn came to address the special session, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi rejected what he described as “unwarranted accusations” against Beijing.
“China has all along followed the principle of non-interference,” Wang said. “We did not and will not interfere in any country’s domestic affairs. We refuse to accept any unwarranted accusations against China.”
Trump did not provide details, but a senior administration official later told reporters that China had been involved in lobbying against Trump administration trade policies, especially in farming districts that had supported the president in the 2016 election.
“These activities have reached an unacceptable level,” the official said. Asked for more details, the talked about Chinese efforts to influence journalists, business and Hollywood, and claimed some of those efforts as covert.
This week, the state-controlled China Daily paid for a four-page advertising section in Iowan newspaper the Des Moines Register to highlight the impact of Trump’s trade policies on the state’s soybean farmers, who are finding it harder to sell to China because of Beijing’s retaliation for US tariffs.
A commentary in the special section, said the farmers were suffering because of the “the fruit of a president’s folly”.
Iowa is a key battleground in the struggle for control of Congress.
During the briefing, the US official also spoke about restrictions on the press and on free speech in China, but did not explain how those issues were linked to interference in elections.
The lack of details in the hastily arranged briefings raised questions of whether Trump had once more taken his own advisors by surprise, at a time when the president’s campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with the Kremlin in the 2016 presidential vote.
Trump has made similar allegations in the past: in September he tweeted that China was “actively trying to impact and change our election by attacking our farmers, ranchers and industrial workers because of their loyalty to me”.
That tweet came a day after the US president intensified his trade war with Beijing by imposing new tariffs of $200bn on Chinese goods arriving in the US.
The unexpected accusation against China was an aside in Trump’s opening statement to the security council. Most of it was a litany of allegations about Iran, which his administration has been seeking to isolate since Trump pulled the US out of a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, in which Iran accepted strict curbs on its nuclear programme.
However, almost every one of the other 14 countries represented on the council spoke up in support in favour of the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action (JCPOA), including close US allies, emphasising US isolation on the issue.
The French president Emmanuel Macron said the JCPOA was “imperfect but a decisive step” towards ensuring Iran did not acquire nuclear weapons. To prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction Macron said the international community had to have “a long-term strategy, not just sanctions and containment”.
UK prime minister Theresa May congratulated Trump for his diplomacy with Kim Jong-un aimed ultimately at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons, but pointedly added that “non-proliferation also required multilateral leadership”. She said that the JCPOA was an “important step forward” adding that the UK was committed to preserving the agreement as long as Iran continued to abide by the agreement.
Russia and its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, also found themselves embattled on the council. Almost every other leader around the its C-shaped table had strong criticism for Russia for its role in shielding the Assad regime in Damascus from concerted UN investigation and action for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and for the nerve agent attack in the UK aimed at a former Russian spy in Salisbury.
Lavrov rejected the criticism, calling the evidence of Syrian chemical weapon use “unfounded allegations” and claiming that the UK had something to hide in the Salisbury investigation.