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Trump helped free three UCLA basketball players from China. Then he demanded their gratitude.

The three players are headed back to the U.S. after being detained in China for allegedly shoplifting from a Louis Vuitton store. Trump, who raised the matter of their freedom with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to the country, has been happy to take credit for their release.

Nobody knows if the three basketball players actually stole anything. If they did, they were unwise. What does seem certain is that their liberty was in jeopardy, and now it is not. And the president of the United States naturally responded to their homecoming with grace and maturity.

The racism (all three players are black) is not a whisper but a shout. They should thank him, but the implication is that they will not.

But there’s more to it than that. The Trump administration appeared to be in awe of the Chinese government’s powers. In an interview with the Times, Chief of Staff John Kelly sounded almost wistful:

“These are law and order guys; they have pretty swift justice,” John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, said of the Chinese authorities in an telephone interview later. “An awful lot of American kids don’t realize that the kinds of things that in United States society we tolerate with a slap on the wrist, a lot of countries they take very seriously.”

The president cannot lock everyone away, not yet at least, so Trump falls back on petulance. Everyone hates Trump! It’s so unfair. Now the U.C.L.A athletes must grovel before him. This is true Trump, a fine example of the vintage. We are more benevolent than China, but only because he chooses.