HALIFAX, Canada ― Congress will override President Donald Trump if he vetoes bipartisan legislation meant to support pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, a Senate Republican leader said Saturday.
“There’s overwhelming support for this ― as you know, 100 [votes] in the United States Senate. I would imagine there would be an override of this. I would encourage the president to sign it,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., told reporters.
Barrasso was responding to a question at the 2019 Halifax International Security Forum, where The John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service was presented to two residents of Hong Kong in support of their pro-democracy activism. Barrasso shared the stage with a bipartisan congressional delegation and Cindy McCain, the widow of the late Senate Armed Services Committee chairman.
Trump’s public wavering on the bill ― in contrast with the resolve from key Republicans and Congress overall ― marked another example for allies of a foreign policy divide in Washington. A key topic at the forum, which is focused on the shared democratic values that undergird America’s alliances, was Trump’s shift toward transactional geopolitics.
Barrasso’s sentiments echoed key proponents of the legislation from Trump’s party, Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, of Idaho, who have also urged Trump to sign the bill. Cruz emphasized in a statement Friday that the measures passed with veto-proof majorities.
Risch, an ally of Trump, said the focus should be on “China’s human rights violations ... in front of the whole word.” A veto from Trump would displease lawmakers, Risch said in an interview with Defense News on the sidelines of the Halifax forum.
“America is about Democracy, human rights and freedom, and whenever you see those things being abused, it gets you fired up,” Risch said of the crackdown. “Any time you start putting financial [concerns] in front of human rights, that’s not a good thing to do. We are first and foremost about human rights, freedom and Democracy.
Trump’s national security advisor Robert O’Brien, speaking separately at the conference, declined to say whether Trump would sign the legislation. “I’ll be very surprised if that bill does not become law soon,” he said. (If Trump does not sign the bill within 10 days of its passage, it will become law without his signature.)
The human rights act mandates sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials who carry out human rights abuses and requires an annual review of the favorable trade status that Washington grants Hong Kong.
Despite the measure’s near-unanimous support in the House and Senate, Trump has left open the possibility of a veto to pave the way for a trade deal with China. The stance put him squarely at odds with nearly everyone in Congress.
“We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi [Jinping],” Trump said Thursday on Fox & Friends. “He’s a friend of mine. He’s an incredible guy. … I stand with freedom, I stand with all of the things that I want to do, but we are also in the process of making one of the largest trade deals in history."
Trump has also insisted that the pressure he has put on Xi has staved off a military response to the protests.
The House on Wednesday passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act by a vote of 417 to 1. The lone holdout was Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. That came one day after the Senate had approved the measure on a unanimous vote.
China has portrayed the pro-democracy protesters as violent criminals and on Thursday demanded Trump veto legislation aimed at supporting human rights in Hong Kong and renewed a threat to take “strong countermeasures” if the bills become law.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.