NY Times Dings Trump on Hong Kong Response, Excuses Obama

Reported criticism of Obama's similar stance toward Iran as conservative 'pressure'

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August 16, 2019

New York Times reporters have criticized President Donald Trump's stance toward pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Their reporting on President Barack Obama's muted stance toward similar protests in Iran a decade ago was passive.

In a "news analysis," Times reporters wrote Trump's "cautious distance" from the pro-democracy protests against China's oppressive government leaves him isolated from Congress and his own advisers.

"Despite ringing declarations of support for the protesters from leading Democrats and Republicans as well as European officials, Mr. Trump has shown little sympathy for the mass demonstrations against China's encroaching political influence on the former British colony," reporters Edward Wong and Michael Crowley wrote. "And in his almost-singular focus on his showdown with Beijing over trade and tariffs, Mr. Trump is ignoring the view of his conservative advisers, who believe that China's authoritarian model threatens American interests worldwide."

They did quote Trump's defenders as saying "he has good reason to tread carefully. One is that Mr. Trump has limited tools for backing up any tough words; it is unthinkable that the United States military would come to the protesters' rescue."

Like Iran in 2009, China's government has accused the U.S. of fomenting protests to undermine the Xi regime. The analysis noted Obama found himself in a similar predicament ten years ago but called him stronger in his support for the protesters' goals:

President Barack Obama faced similar concerns in June 2009 after a wave of pro-democracy uprisings emerged in Iran. Mr. Obama was relatively restrained in his commentary about the Iranian protests, largely because of fears that expressions of support would play into the hands of Iranian leaders who insisted that the protests had been stirred up by the Central Intelligence Agency. But Mr. Obama still made clear his support for the protesters' goals, saying that "the democratic process — free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent — all those are universal values and need to be respected."

Trump wouldn't be the first president to tread lightly on China's "internal affairs," the analysis admitted.

"Human rights groups criticized Mr. Obama for failing to more forcefully challenge Mr. Xi's clampdown on civil society during his administration," the Times wrote. "And Mr. Obama's secretary of state at the time, Hillary Clinton, told reporters on her first trip to Beijing that, while Washington must press Beijing on its values, 'pressing on those issues can't interfere' with such other priorities as the economy and climate change."

The Times extensively covered the Iran protests following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's widely disputed election in 2009, but an examination of its reports revealed passive coverage of the criticism Obama received for his muted response to the protests.

"Mr. Obama is coming under increased pressure from Republicans and other conservatives who say he should take a more visible stance in support of the protesters," the Times reported on June 17, 2009, adding officials like Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton privately urged him to take a stronger stance.

Another Times story two days later, headlined "Obama Resists Calls for a Tougher Stance on Iran," reported the "Obama administration has fended off pressure from both parties to respond more forcefully to the disputed election there:"

Congressional Republicans and conservative foreign-policy experts stepped up their pressure on the White House to take a firmer stand in support of the demonstrators, even as Mr. Obama worked to keep Democrats from breaking openly with him on Iran.

For now, administration officials said they had not been swayed by criticism that Mr. Obama's refusal to speak out more had broken faith with democracy advocates in Tehran, or by the fact that European leaders and even members of his own party in Congress had responded more assertively than he had.


Mr. Obama continued to face pressure at home not to miss an opportunity to align the United States with a potentially historic shift in Iran. On Friday, both houses of Congress threw full support behind the rights of protesters to challenge the election results. In the House, lawmakers voted 405 to 1 to adopt a nonbinding resolution condemning the violence against demonstrators. The Senate passed a similar resolution later in the day.

The report noted Obama's resistance to making politically helpful statements that might hinder his long-term goal of diplomatic engagement with Iran. Obama's administration went on to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015.

Obama used stronger language on June 23, 2009, leading to another Times dispatch that he had made his toughest comments yet in response to Tehran's thuggery toward protesters.

"At home, Mr. Obama has been under intense pressure, especially from conservatives, to align the United States more forcefully with the protesters," reporters Helene Cooper and David Sanger wrote. "On Tuesday, he dismissed suggestions that he had changed his tone toward Iran in response to critical comments from Senator John McCain of Arizona and other Republicans."

The sharpest words about Obama at the time came from Roger Cohen, who penned a column wondering where Obama was following his Inaugural Address condemnation of governments that silence dissenters.

"A stronger condemnation of the violence and repression is needed, despite Khamenei's warnings. Obama should also rectify his erroneous equating, from the U.S. national security perspective, of Ahmadinejad and Moussavi," Cohen wrote.

The paper's left-leaning editorial board didn't pen any screeds about Obama's response to the protests in 2009. It did heartily endorse the controversial Iran nuclear deal, and reprimanded Trump for withdrawing the U.S. from it last year.