Donald Trump is now fully executing the plan to make China the villain in the COVID-19 pandemic so that he can rally the country around an external foe and possibly save his floundering reelection campaign.
Senior Trump administration officials have pushed American spy agencies to hunt for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that a government laboratory in Wuhan, China, was the origin of the coronavirus outbreak, according to current and former American officials. The effort comes as President Trump escalates a public campaign to blame China for the pandemic.
Some intelligence analysts are concerned that the pressure from administration officials will distort assessments about the virus and that they could be used as a political weapon in an intensifying battle with China over a disease that has infected more than three million people across the globe.
Most intelligence agencies remain skeptical that conclusive evidence of a link to a lab can be found, and scientists who have studied the genetics of the coronavirus say that the overwhelming probability is that it leapt from animal to human in a nonlaboratory setting, as was the case with H.I.V., Ebola and SARS.
Mr. Trump’s aides and Republicans in Congress have sought to blame China for the pandemic in part to deflect criticism of the administration’s mismanagement of the crisis in the United States, which now has more coronavirus cases than any country. More than one million Americans have been infected, and more than 60,000 have died.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former C.I.A. director and the administration’s most vocal hard-liner on China, has taken the lead in pushing American intelligence agencies for more information, according to current and former officials.
Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser who reported on SARS outbreaks as a journalist in China, has pressed intelligence agencies off and on since January to gather information that might support any origin theory linked to a lab.
And Anthony Ruggiero, the head of the National Security Council’s bureau tracking weapons of mass destruction, expressed frustration during one videoconference in January that the C.I.A. was unable to get behind any theory of the outbreak’s origin. C.I.A. analysts responded that they simply did not have the evidence to support any one theory with high confidence at the time, according to people familiar with the conversation.
The C.I.A.’s judgment was based in part on the fact that no signs had emerged that the Chinese government believed the outbreak came from a lab. The Chinese government has vigorously denied that the virus leaked from a lab while pushing disinformation on its origins, including suggesting that the American military created it.
Any American intelligence report blaming a Chinese institution and officials for the outbreak could significantly harm relations with China for years to come. And Trump administration officials could use it to try to prod other nations to publicly hold China accountable for coronavirus deaths even when the pandemic’s exact origins cannot be determined.
The State Department declined to answer questions about Mr. Pompeo’s role. Spokesmen for the White House and the National Security Council declined to comment.
So Trump wants our intel agencies to "find" something on China. Setting aside the horrific prospect of that, this is exactly what Trump wanted from Ukraine as far as "finding" something on Joe Biden, yes?
Besides, Trump plans to take action to punish China anyway. He doesn't need justification, apparently.
Senior U.S. officials are beginning to explore proposals for punishing or demanding financial compensation from China for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, according to four senior administration officials with knowledge of internal planning.
The move could splinter already strained relations between the two superpowers at a perilous moment for the global economy.
Senior officials across multiple government agencies are expected to meet Thursday to begin mapping out a strategy for seeking retaliatory measures against China, two people with knowledge of the meeting said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to disclose the planning. Officials in American intelligence agencies are also involved in the effort.
President Trump has fumed to aides and others in recent days about China, blaming the country for withholding information about the virus, and has discussed enacting dramatic measures that would probably lead to retaliation by Beijing, these people said.
In private, Trump and aides have discussed stripping China of its “sovereign immunity,” aiming to enable the U.S. government or victims to sue China for damages. George Sorial, who formerly served as a top executive at the Trump Organization and is involved in a class-action lawsuit against China, told The Washington Post he and senior White House officials have discussed limiting China’s sovereign immunity. Legal experts say an attempt to limit China’s sovereign immunity would be extremely difficult to accomplish and may require congressional legislation.
Some administration officials have also discussed having the United States cancel part of its debt obligations to China, two people with knowledge of internal conversations said. It was not known if the president has backed this idea. Two senior White House economic officials ruled out the possibility of doing so shortly after this story was published.
Administration officials strongly cautioned that the discussions are preliminary and that little formal work has begun on turning these initial ideas into reality. Other administration officials are warning Trump against the push to punish China, saying the country is sending supplies to help the American response.
Performative government for the rubes, I guess. But he does need to keep his base focused on China rather than his own massive failures.