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Pompeo is Trump attack dog on China, COVID-19

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoWar in the Caucasus: What happens without US leadership — but a chance to get it right Pompeo to meet separately with Azerbaijan, Armenia top diplomats Taking aim at online anti-Semitism MORE has positioned himself as the Trump administration’s most aggressive China critic, pushing the argument that Beijing holds responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic.

He’s drawn the ire of Chinese officials and state-backed media, who label him a “liar” and have called him “the common enemy of mankind” for his attacks on the Communist Party, shifting their attacks directly on the secretary and away from earlier accusations speculating the U.S. military spread COVID-19.

And despite mixed messages from U.S. officials and pushback from allies, the secretary continues to speculate whether the coronavirus leaked from a Chinese laboratory as he demands a global investigation.

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“We know that it originated in Wuhan, China. That much is certain,” the secretary said in an interview Thursday with conservative talk radio show host Chris Stigall.

“What we don’t know yet is precisely where it came from and how it began to spread. We can’t identify patient zero. We’ve seen evidence that it came from the lab. That may not be the case,” he added.

Some U.S. allies such as Australia and the European Union have echoed calls by Pompeo for an investigation looking at the spread of the coronavirus, which has confined many around the world to their homes and created widespread economic damage.

But they have diverged over whether such an examination should focus on speculation that it originated from a lab in China and have stopped short of placing blame directly on Beijing.

Australian intelligence agencies, which are part of the Five Eyes international intelligence sharing alliance with the U.S., have pushed back on claims that there’s evidence supporting the lab theory, saying any information they’ve reviewed is mostly culled from open sources and based on news reports, according to Australian media

Meanwhile, the European Union has raised the alarm that tensions between the U.S. and China could risk hurting the global coronavirus response.

“I know there is a controversy [between] China and the United States about the origin of the virus,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in an interview with Euronews on Friday.

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“We need a scientific, independent approach, not to blame, but to know,” he said.

Chinese officials and state-backed media have shot back at U.S. efforts to assign Beijing responsibility while attacking Pompeo directly.

China has “taken the gloves off” on its attacks against Pompeo, said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And they have not launched these kinds of attacks on anyone else in the administration.”

Trump has frequently blamed China for spreading the coronavirus, referring to it at times as the "Chinese virus." But he has since backed off explicitly repeating allegations the virus came from a Chinese lab, despite earlier saying he’d seen evidence and more recently suggesting the virus spread was a “mistake” and saying it spread because of individual incompetence.

"Something happened. Either they made a terrible mistake — probably it was incompetence. Somebody was stupid, and they didn’t do the job that they should’ve done. It’s too bad," Trump said in an interaction with reporters on Thursday.

Glaser said that “Pompeo has been more direct, confrontational, in your face, than any other prior secretary of State we have ever had,” and the Chinese likely see his rhetoric as a threat to the ruling Communist Party.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying has responded directly to Pompeo’s accusations, accusing the secretary of “fabricating lies” and “manufacturing” evidence to tie the virus to the lab.

“Where is the evidence? Show it!” she said in a briefing Thursday with reporters. “Or is he still in the process of manufacturing some?”

U.S. and Chinese relations are at a low, Glaser said, but are not yet at rock bottom. On Thursday, U.S. Treasury officials and their Chinese counterparts participated in a conference call and said “good progress” is happening on trade agreements.

Yet experts say the two countries are in competition more than they are in cooperation, and one of the greatest risks is whether diplomatic sparring hinders progress on developing a vaccine against COVID-19.

“It’s very much part of the great power competition that’s underway,” Glaser said. “We don’t want China to be the one to get the vaccine first.”

Some of Pompeo’s criticisms of Beijing are not unfounded, said Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, including reports that Chinese officials have silenced whistleblowers, provided faulty statistics on the virus spread and given out inaccurate information about human transmission.

“There’s plenty of things you can hold them accountable for on that end, without pointing at this lab,” he said, adding that the fixation appears to be an extension of the broader competition between the U.S. and China.

“Pompeo is unequivocally the voice that’s the main leader for the foreign policy side on countering the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “He’s pushing back against very aggressive efforts to undermine America’s leadership. There’s something to be said for that.”

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Yet Joscelyn cautioned that the insistence on the pandemic originating in the lab is at risk of wearing thin without clear-cut evidence.

“If you’re going to keep talking about the lab, at some point you’re going to need to have some evidence to back that up,” he said. “If there isn’t evidence, I don’t know what they’re doing.”

Pompeo’s claims against China have come under fire from critics as playing politics, an effort to deflect from the Trump administration’s domestic response to the virus.

“The administration’s statements on the origin of COVID-19 are far too driven by political considerations,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing Senate Democrats seek to alleviate public concern about some results not being available on election night MORE (D-Conn.) wrote in an email to The Hill.

Murphy is one of the Democratic lawmakers pushing Pompeo to provide information on what the State Department knew about safety and security failings of Chinese laboratories, reportedly documented in diplomatic cables sent in 2018.

“They are scurrying to deflect blame for a president who is foundering in his response to the pandemic, and China is a convenient scapegoat,” he added. “It’s true [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping] covered up China’s mistakes – and continues to – but the insinuation that there is clear evidence to suggest the virus was man-made is totally irresponsible.”

Pompeo has repeated his criticisms of Beijing and his claims, especially when turning to conservative audiences at radio shows or other interviews. 

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“He is inherently a political being,” said Scott Mulhauser, a Democratic strategist who has worked in senior foreign policy roles with former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally MORE, the Senate Finance Committee and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

China has emerged as a political flashpoint in the lead-up to the elections in November, and the number of Americans holding negative views of China is increasing.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to view Beijing unfavorably, according to recent survey data from the Pew Research Center.

Trump’s reelection campaign has released ads attacking Biden over his stance on China.

Pompeo at times uses the interviews to remind listeners of his own political experience, having earlier served as a Republican congressman from Kansas. The secretary had earlier been tapped to run for the open Senate seat for Kansas but has declined.

“You don’t do 90 interviews with friendly audiences without a goal in mind,” Mulhauser said, noting the filing deadline for the Senate race in Kansas is in June. “As the spotlight is shining particularly bright on the president and his administration’s failings on the China front, this effort at rehabilitation is clearly designed to try and turn the narrative that favors them a bit more, whether true or not.”