U.S. President Donald Trump promised a “conclusive” report on the Chinese origins of the coronavirus outbreak, showing relations between the world’s biggest economies are set to remain rocky at least until the next election six months from now.
Trump pledged the report Sunday in a “virtual town hall” with Fox News, in which he added that he had little doubt that Beijing misled the world about the scale and risk of the disease. Earlier, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said “enormous evidence” shows the Covid-19 outbreak began in a laboratory in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, without providing evidence to support his claims.
“We’re going to be giving a very strong report as to exactly what we think happened. And I think it will be very conclusive,” Trump said in response to a question about the lab. “My opinion is they made a mistake. They tried to cover it. They tried to put it out, just like a fire.”
American and Chinese officials have been trading charges for weeks as the U.S. became one of the countries hardest hit by the disease. Trump has been ratcheting up efforts to paint China as the villain, as the U.S. economy drifts into recession and the president’s handling of the crisis boosts support for the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.
The dispute has complicated efforts to mount a global response to the virus, with U.S. officials emphasizing Chinese responsibility for failing to stop its spread. The spat also renewed fears that the “phase one” trade deal reached by both sides in January won’t be enough to prevent their relationship from becoming increasingly confrontational.
“The Trump administration’s singular focus on holding China to account for its role in the pandemic scuttles any remaining chance that the U.S. and China will hit pause on their strategic competition ahead of the election,” said Ashley Townshend, director of foreign policy and defense at the University of Sydney’s U.S. Studies Centre. “The election may well become a referendum on which candidate — Trump or Biden — is most trusted to be tough on China.”
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday, a public holiday in Beijing.
Although China has avoided criticizing Trump by name, the foreign ministry last Thursday accused some U.S. officials of trying “to shift their own responsibility for their poor handling of the epidemic to others.” Chinese state media also released an animated video mocking the speed of the U.S.’s response to the outbreak.
Although China has reprimanded Wuhan police for punishing doctors who sounded early warnings about the disease and replaced local officials responsible for the initial outbreak, Beijing says its response has been open and transparent. China’s foreign ministry has cited Trump’s tweets praising Xi’s handling of the outbreak as evidence of U.S. satisfaction with its response.
The White House’s deputy national security adviser, Matt Pottinger, is scheduled to speak on the U.S. relationship with China Monday in a online seminar hosted by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Pottinger’s remarks will champion democracy and freedom in China and won’t directly address intelligence on the virus, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Pottinger will deliver part of his remarks in Mandarin, the person said, calling it a first for a senior U.S. official.
Earlier Sunday, the Associated Press reported that U.S. officials believe China covered up the extent of the outbreak, in part, to stock up on medical supplies needed to respond to the virus. Pompeo separately told ABC’s “This Week” that there was “a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.”
“These are not the first times that we’ve had a world exposed to viruses as a result of failures in a Chinese lab,” Pompeo said.
While the Wuhan Institute of Virology was studying bat-borne coronaviruses like the one that causes Covid-19 at the time of the first known outbreak nearby, there has so far been no evidence showing it possessed the previously unknown strain. Yuan Zhiming, director of the facility’s high-security Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, said last month that “there is absolutely no way that the virus originated from our institute.”
Pompeo stopped short of alleging that the virus was man-made, saying he had “no reason to” disagree with a report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that ruled out genetic modification of the pathogen. Pompeo declined to say whether China intentionally released the virus.
In the town hall event Sunday, Trump passed up an opportunity to directly criticize Chinese President Xi Jinping, calling him a “strong” leader who he struck a trade deal with just as the outbreak was spreading.
“I’m not going to say anything,” Trump said. “I had a very good relationship with him.”
–With assistance from Steve Geimann, Anna Waters and Nick Wadhams.
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