Tiananmen Square, Trump, and what he sees as 'the power of strength'

As Pompeo meets with Tiananmen Square survivors, his boss is on record praising China's handling of the crisis.
Image: A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989.
A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989.Jeff Widener / AP file
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By Steve Benen

Right about now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to meet with survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which appears to be a not-so-subtle symbolic shot at Beijing amidst rising tensions between the United States and China. There are, however, some wrinkles of note.

For one thing, the timing of Pompeo's diplomatic gathering could be better. It was, after all, less than 24 hours ago when peaceful protestors were removed by force from a public park across the from the White House in advance of a presidential photo-op.

For another, Pompeo's boss is on record praising China's handling of the crisis at Tiananmen Square. Consider what Donald Trump told Playboy magazine the year after the massacre.

"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."

In other words, when Trump saw the famous images out of Beijing in 1989, he was impressed not with the students, but with the tanks.

The future American president added at the time that the Soviet leadership of the USSR at the time didn't have "a firm enough hand."

In fairness, that interview was 30 years ago. But as recently as 2016, Trump also publicly touted Saddam Hussein's approach to governing in Iraq. It wasn't the first time the Republican offered tacit praise for the Iraqi dictator.

Trump has similarly expressed admiration for Russia's Vladimir Putin, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, North Korea's Kim Jong-un, Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte for their capacity to demonstrate what Trump considers "toughness."

It was against this backdrop that Trump held a White House videoconference with U.S. governors yesterday, admonishing them for being "weak" and "fools." The president added, "You have to dominate" -- a line he repeated on Twitter this morning.

Perhaps Pompeo should refrain from repeating his boss' talking points while visiting with survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre this morning.