Trump steps up effort to blame China for coronavirus

The Trump administration is escalating an effort to blame China for the novel coronavirus pandemic as global pressure grows on Beijing to cooperate with an investigation into the origins of the outbreak. 

President Trump, who has endured consistent scrutiny for his own lagged response to the virus domestically, has accused China of covering up the outbreak and suggested that the virus wouldn’t have spread globally if Beijing had been more transparent to begin with.

“I think they made a horrible mistake and they didn’t want to admit it. We wanted to go in. They didn’t want us there,” Trump said during a Fox News virtual town hall Sunday. “This virus should not have spread all over the world. They should have put it out.” 

The Trump administration is weighing steps to punish Beijing, including leveling new tariffs on imports from China. 

After initially complimenting China’s handling of the virus, Trump has hardened his rhetoric as COVID-19 has spread across the United States, infecting more than 1 million Americans and devastating the U.S. economy. 

Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have claimed there is significant evidence that the virus emanated from a lab in Wuhan — though neither has actually provided any evidence.

The intelligence community is investigating the virus’s origins, including whether it could have come from a lab.

Heath and virology experts broadly believe the virus was transferred from an animal to a human in nature. World Health Organization (WHO) officials at a Monday briefing said evidence based on nearly 15,000 fully sequenced samples of the coronavirus suggested it is of natural origin and that they had seen no evidence a laboratory was involved.

“We have not received any data or specific evidence from the United States government relating to the purported origin,” said Mike Ryan, director of the WHO’s emergency program. “From our perspective, this remains speculative.”

Trump has also targeted the WHO, halting U.S. funding to the organization and saying it has been biased toward China.

He has more broadly criticized China’s handling of its outbreak, arguing it “could have been stopped at the source.” 

This is an argument that has been joined by U.S. allies, with Australia and European countries pressing for an investigation into the novel coronavirus’s origins.

Health experts say China could have helped prevent the size of the international outbreak if the country had acted more quickly to contain the coronavirus in Wuhan and more readily shared critical details about it with the international community, such as evidence of human-to-human transmission. 

“Wherever that first jump occurs, whether it’s from animal to human or lab to human, it doesn’t really matter. Whoever, wherever that happens, you have to overcommunicate,” Deborah Birx, a top health official on the White House coronavirus task force, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“That didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen until late, and you know it didn’t happen until mid-January that they even talked about human-to-human transmission,” Birx continued. “And when you see how many countries now are infected, that did fan the virus across the globe.” 

The administration is considering stripping Beijing of its sovereign immunity or withholding U.S. debt to China, according to The Washington Post. Trump first suggested last week that he could slap new tariffs on China but was noncommittal when asked about his plans on Sunday. 

“It’s the ultimate punishment. I will tell you that,” Trump said. “I don’t like to tell you what because we’re all playing a very complicated game of chess or poker.”

Matthew Funaiole, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic International Studies’s China Power Project, said the use of tariffs could conflate the current dust-up with Trump’s ongoing trade war with China.

“Any tit-for-tat action between the two sides could very well get lumped in with the ongoing trade dispute, especially if tariffs come into play,” he said.

The vast majority of tariffs Trump imposed on China over the last few years have remained in effect through the pandemic, though the administration allowed some exceptions for materials related to masks and ventilators.

Tariffs remain in place on materials for hand sanitizer, thermometers and disinfectant wipes, according to manufacturers, who have called for a reduction.

Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro said he expected new laws to limit government purchases abroad, at least for government agencies.

“Buy American is going to be the law of the land, I believe, soon at HHS, DOD, the Veterans administration,” he told Fox News Monday, referring to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a Trump ally in Congress, noted that China could choke off America’s key supplies.

“Americans have seen in real time the extent to which we are dependent on China for drugs, medical supplies and equipment,” he said. “If the Chinese wanted to put us in a serious bind, they could withhold these lifesaving drugs from the United States.”

On Monday, he introduced a bill to incentivize pharmaceutical and medical companies to move their supply lines back to the U.S.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin threatened harsh retaliation if China pulls back from its promise to buy an additional $50 billion of agricultural products from the United States, a condition it seems unlikely to meet.

“I have every reason to expect that they honor this agreement, and if they don’t, there will be very significant consequences in the relationship and in the global economy as to how people would do business with them,” Mnuchin told Fox Business on Monday.

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that taking retaliatory measures against Beijing could backfire by setting a damaging precedent and potentially discourage countries from reporting new outbreaks in the future. 

“Essentially there is no effective mechanism to really hold a country accountable,” Huang said. “Secondly, this could just open a can of worms if we proceed to do so.” 

Funaiole agreed, saying China could use the United States’s own poor handling of the pandemic against it.

“Whatever actions China does take will likely be designed to paint the administration as spreading anti-Chinese propaganda and to question U.S. global leadership,” Funaiole said.

“U.S. credibility abroad is already suffering — and not just because of the U.S. response to the coronavirus — which provides low-hanging fruit for the Chinese to pluck,” he added.

Tags China Chip Roy Coronavirus Donald Trump Mike Pompeo Steven Mnuchin

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