By Daniel Flatley and Josh Wingrove
President Donald Trump is escalating efforts to pin blame on China for unleashing a pandemic that has killed more than 60,000 Americans and is exploring ways to hold Beijing accountable, though his options are limited because of the potential economic consequences.
Trump and his aides sharpened their criticism of Beijing this week, demanding answers about the virus’s origin and hinting at possible retaliation. The president tweeted Friday that some U.S. television networks are “Chinese puppets,” while his super-political action committee unleashes anti-China ads and his top economic adviser issued his own warning.
“They have a lot to answer for, they’re going to be held accountable,” Larry Kudlow told CNBC on Friday. “How, what, when and why” is up to the president, he said.
While Trump’s White House has begun to discuss a crackdown on China and the president is looking for options, his focus is on containing the virus and no move is imminent, according to people familiar with the matter. Trump has not decided on a timeline to act, one said.
Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday that tariffs on China are “certainly an option” but didn’t elaborate. Kudlow rejected the idea of canceling U.S. debt obligations to China on Thursday.
The president has long sought to shift blame for the U.S. outbreak, which exceeds more than 1 million cases. Three years into his term, he has faulted his predecessors for failing to fill the government’s stockpile of medical supplies or build a testing regime for the pandemic. He’s accused Democrats of distracting him with an impeachment trial at the beginning of the year.
His view of China’s culpability has similarly shifted. Early in the crisis, Trump repeatedly complimented Chinese President Xi Jinping and his government for their handling of the virus. The U.S. president triumphantly signed a trade deal with a delegation of Chinese officials in January, as the outbreak was gathering steam in China’s Hubei province.
Trump’s recent pivot could splinter a bipartisan consensus in Congress, dating to before the pandemic, that the U.S. needed to get tougher on China about trade and other issues. Republicans now want to hammer the country over its alleged obfuscation of the virus’s origin and spread and have called Democrats Chinese sympathizers or even agents for Beijing. Democrats criticize Republicans for following Trump in seeking to cut funding for the World Health Organization and say the president is trying to deflect from shortcomings in the U.S. response.
Trump says the WHO took Chinese claims about the virus at “face value.”
But Congress and many of Trump’s advisers may balk at any retaliation that stunts the U.S.’s own economic recovery.
“The first thing you have to ask is: is this going to negatively impact the U.S. economic recovery?” said James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank with ties to the administration. “If the answer is yes, you’ve got to push that off. The second thing you have to ask is: Is this actually going to hurt China?”
The debate stands to factor in the 2020, election, which will take place as the U.S. continues to stave off the coronavirus outbreak and its associated economic devastation. More than 30 million jobs have been lost as Americans adopted social-distancing practices to curb the spread of the disease.
At the same time, a growing majority of Americans -- two-thirds, according to the Pew Research Center -- now have an unfavorable view of China.
The president’s own internal polling has shown a large appetite -- beyond his own voter base -- for a tougher stance toward China, according to an official who asked not to be identified discussing the data. Trump is also under pressure to change course, as his own polling has taken a distinct negative turn, the person said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has criticized China this week for blocking probes into the origin of the virus, and left the door open to some sort of retaliation.
“There’ll be ample time to evaluate how it is we hold accountable those responsible for the loss of what is now tens of thousands of American lives and an enormous amount of wealth, not only American wealth but the global economy’s devastation, as a result of this virus,” he told reporters this week.
On Friday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended Trump’s suggestion that the virus could have originated from a lab in Wuhan.
A day earlier, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the American intelligence community “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the Covid-19 virus was not man made or genetically modified.” The DNI said intelligence agencies would seek to determine whether the outbreak resulted from contact with infected animals or was the result of a laboratory accident.
“Let me remind everyone intelligence is just an estimate essentially and it’s up to policy makers to decide what to do with that intelligence,” McEnany told reporters. “In this case, the policy maker is the president the United States and will make that decision.”
White House aide Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, told Fox News this week that Trump “has asked the team to look into it very carefully what happened, how this got here and to make sure that he will take whatever actions are necessary to make sure that the people who caused the problems are held accountable for it.”
‘Looking for Scapegoats'
Republican senators all want to be critical of China, but specific measures will divide the caucus, one Republican official said. Trump’s proposals will complicate the view in Congress, regardless.
“We’re living in a highly politicized world and just a few months before a presidential election, partisan instincts become worse,” said Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas. “Too many Democrats, I think, view every issue through the lens of their antipathy for Donald Trump.”
Bu Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, said it is Trump and Republicans who are playing politics on China.
“They are desperately looking for scapegoats and the WHO and China are convenient objects of blame,” he said. “Neither one of them have clean hands, but Trump has to explain why so many people died in this country when we had plenty of advance warning, no matter what mistakes were made in China.”
Republicans in recent weeks have introduced a series of anti-China legislation, including measures to strip the country “sovereign immunity” protections from U.S. lawsuits and banning live wildlife markets where the virus may have originated.
“There is overwhelming evidence that the Chinese Communist Party’s lies, deceit, and incompetence caused COVID-19 to transform from a local disease outbreak into a global pandemic,” Senator Josh Hawley, who proposed one such bill, said.
And Republicans have called for an examination of the World Health Organization’s handling of the early phases of the pandemic, with accusations that the organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was too willing to accept the Chinese party line.
Democrats have decried some Republican proposals but there is one point of emerging consensus: overhauling the U.S. supply chain. Both Murphy and Cruz, despite their opposing view on the WHO and other issues related to the virus, said they saw as a priority addressing the U.S.’s dependence on China for everything from personal protective equipment to rare earth metals.
“Everyone gets it,” said Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The American people understand that we’re just way too reliant on China for our medical supply.”
There’s a political benefit too, according to McCaul. “It also appeals to the working man that both parties are trying to capture,” McCaul said.