Sasse rips 'thugs in China' in high school graduation speech

Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseKoch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Chamber of Commerce endorses Cornyn for reelection Trump administration narrows suspects in Russia bounties leak investigation: report MORE (R-Neb.) took aim at China over its handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic in joke-filled remarks during a high school commencement address over the weekend.

Sasse made the comments during his speech to Nebraska's Fremont High School graduating class, in which he was discussing the impact the outbreak has had on Nebraska. The New York Times database shows the state has reported more than 10,000 cases of the virus in recent weeks and more than 120 deaths.

“It's hit our state hard. It's probably hit your family. It's hit our whole country and nobody knows exactly how we're going to beat this thing. But you know what? We're Americans. We’re Nebraskans. We've got grit and we're gonna beat this thing,” he said in the virtual address.

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“We're going to have to have a serious reckoning with the thugs in China who let this mess spiral out of control by lying about it,” he went on to say.

Earlier in his address, which runs for roughly eight minutes, Sasse also made a few wisecracks about China while ribbing on issues ranging from fitness to majoring in psychology.

Sasse joked that the high school graduates were going to be the “first generation in human history” to have their graduation “seared” into their memories due, in large part, to the pandemic, which led to mass school closures across the country in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“You're going to say stuff at your high school reunion service ceremonies [like], ‘Remember that time that China started a big global pandemic that created the worst public health crisis in over a century and brought the economy to its knees and we had to stay at home and everybody was hoarding toilet paper and we all watched this documentary about some weirdo dude who raised tigers?'” he joked. “Uh yeah, it’ll be pretty hard to forget that.”

“Congratulations, parents, teachers and coaches, not that there's really any meaningful distinction among those categories anymore at this point,” he also joked at another point during his address. “If you're a parent, you're a teacher. Thanks a lot China, we're all teachers now.”

His comments targeting China come about two months after he urged Twitter to remove the Chinese Communist Party from the social media platform, accusing it of “waging a massive propaganda campaign to rewrite the history of COVID-19 and whitewash the Party’s lies to the Chinese people and the world.” 

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A bipartisan group of House members also introduced a measure condemning China over its response to the outbreak and accusing it of spreading misinformation to downplay the threat of the disease.

Sasse’s politically charged commencement remarks did not go without criticism.

Chris Janicek, Sasse’s Democratic challenger, blasted his comments in a statement to the Omaha World-Herald over the weekend.

“It’s hard for me to believe that a U.S. senator would make remarks like he did in that speech,” Janicek told the outlet. 

“Ridiculing mental health care specialists, suggesting that the graduates are lazy slackers and using the platform to blame China for the pandemic we have now is beyond reprehensible,” Janicek continued.

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Janicek appeared to be referring to a joke Sasse made during the address when he said high school graduates would be asked to climb a rope for “no reason” in the real world.

“Sure every now and then the rope is a metaphor, but honestly most of the time it's just a big rope and you have to climb it," Sasse said. "If you don't get that joke, talk your mom and dad. Back in the day, when we were a lot fitter than you people are, we used to have to climb ropes all the way up to the ceiling of the gym all the time.” 

He also joked later in his address that the majority of “all gainfully employed” psychologists’ jobs are “really just to help people forget high school” and said to students: “If you're headed to college, do not — do not — major in psychology. That part's not a joke.” 

Sasse’s address also drew criticism from Michael Petersen, a member of the Fremont school board, who said in a Facebook post address to congratulating graduates that they “deserved better than the graduation remarks from Senator Ben Sasse.”

“The racism, implying that our graduates are fat and lazy, disparaging teachers, and attacking the mental health profession are despicable. You owe the graduating students of Fremont High an apology,” Petersen, whom the Omaha World-Herald noted has backed Janicek in the state’s Senate race, added. 

In a statement to The Hill on late Sunday, James Wegmann, a spokesman for Sasse’s office, pushed back on some of the criticism targeting the senator’s remarks.

“Like he said in the video greeting, Ben’s proud of each of the graduates — and he believes their generation is tough enough to help lead us through the bumpy economic times ahead. It’s ridiculous that Chris Janicek and the Nebraska Democratic Party are complaining about Ben calling out China in a joke and are using it to fundraise,” he said. 

“Ben’s said this for months, because it’s true: The Chinese Communist Party’s coronavirus coverup wasted time that could have contained the spread — those lies cost innocent lives in China and around the world. Pretending graduates are too fragile to hear the truth is silly,” Wegmann added.