The rationale behind Trump accusing China of election interference

File photo taken in November 2017 shows U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
File photo taken in November 2017 shows U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

At a United Nations Security Council meeting this morning, Donald Trump did something quite unexpected: he accused China, a fellow Security Council member, of interfering in American elections.

"...China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election -- coming up in November -- against my administration."They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade, and we are winning on trade -- we are winning at every level. We don't want to them to meddle or interfere in our upcoming election."

If you watch the clip, you'll notice that the American president was carefully reading from a prepared text, though a few of the clunkier phrases were ad-libbed.

As Trump exited the building, a reporter asked if he could point to any evidence to substantiate the allegation. He responded that there's "plenty of evidence," adding, in reference to officials in Beijing, "They would like to see me not win."

At face value, talk of a foreign rival "attempting to interfere" in American elections immediately reminds many of us Russian attacks in 2016, which were intended to put Trump in power.

But that's probably not what Trump was talking about this morning. The Republican apparently sees a distinction between direct election interference and indirect election interference.

Direct election interference is the kind of sophisticated intelligence operation hatched by Moscow that targeted the United States ahead of the 2016 races. I'm reasonably sure that's not what Trump was accusing China of doing now.

Rather, the American president is looking at this through a trade-specific lens. Follow the train of thought: Trump has launched a trade war, imposing tariffs on China, which has led to a series of retaliatory tariffs from Beijing. Many of China's tariffs have, as you've probably heard, targeted U.S. agricultural products.

And that's apparently where Trump's theory kicks in. As the American president sees it, Chinese tariffs have an adverse effect on American farmers, and since rural areas tend to be conservative, the political impact of the trade policy will be a lot of angry Republican voters.

So, as far as Trump is concerned, China tariffs and China's election interference are the same thing. As far as the president is concerned, there's "plenty of evidence" because there are both plenty of tariffs and plenty of angry conservative farmers.

The diplomatic impact of this isn't likely to be helpful -- China won't be pleased by the accusation -- but the broader question for the White House is why Trump seems to have one standard for what constitutes Russian election interference and an entirely different standard for China.