- The Washington Times
Sunday, April 19, 2020

President Trump said Sunday that he is “not happy” with China over the communist nation’s early fumbles in disclosing the novel coronavirus, as the U.S. government and intelligence agencies investigate the origins of the virus and whether Beijing initially concealed information about the outbreak.

Mr. Trump said he wants to get into China to investigate what led to the outbreak from Wuhan. Vice President Mike Pence told the Sunday talk shows that Beijing wasn’t as forthcoming as it should have been and that U.S. officials will make “inquiries at the proper time.”

“The virus came along, and I’m not happy. And I let them know,” Mr. Trump said at his daily briefing, adding that the pandemic ruined the good faith he had built with China in a trade deal. “We’re not happy. This is not a good thing that happened.”

The administration is looking into two main areas: whether China downplayed the potential threat of the virus, putting the U.S. and other nations at a disadvantage, and whether the pathogen spread to humans from animals at a “wet market” in Wuhan or whether it escaped — perhaps unwittingly — from a government laboratory nearby.

“If it was a mistake, a mistake is a mistake. But if they were knowingly responsible, yeah, then there should be consequences,” Mr. Trump said earlier in the weekend. “I haven’t ruled out anything. I want to look at the facts as they come in.”

Mr. Trump is pointing fingers at China while facing criticism at home for early stumbles in testing and isolating the virus as the outbreak raced across the globe in late January and February. The virus has reached every state in the U.S., sickening over 740,000.

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States have been forced to shut down once-thriving economies. Mr. Trump,who faces reelection in November, is weighing whether the communist government in Beijing should pay a price.

Mr. Trump revisited the concept repeatedly over the weekend. He said the spread “could have been stopped in China before it started, and it wasn’t, and the whole world is suffering.”

He has also cast doubt on the death toll reported by China, where the virus was first discovered late last year. He said China’s reported toll of roughly 4,600 is a major undercount and suggested that deaths in China probably exceed the U.S. total, which neared 40,000 on Sunday.

Mr. Trump confirmed that the U.S. is looking at how the virus began to spread in Wuhan, a city of 11 million in China’s central Hubei province.

“It depends. Was it a mistake that got out of control, or was it done deliberately?” Mr. Trump said. “I think they were embarrassed. I think they knew it was something bad, and I think they were embarrassed.”

There are two main theories regarding the origin of the virus: that it hopped from its natural reservoir in bats to an intermediate animal, which then infected humans at a live market, or that it leaked out of a Wuhan laboratory where it was being studied. Scientists say details and samples of the virus from Wuhan are needed for developing therapies and vaccines, and for responding to future health crises.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China is blocking access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which potentially has information about the spread of COVID-19.

“We are still asking the Chinese Communist Party to allow experts to get into that virology lab so that we can determine precisely where this virus began,” he said on Fox Business Network. “It’s not political. This is about science and epidemiology. We need to understand what has taken place so that we can reduce [the] risk to Americans in the days and weeks and months ahead and get the global economy back on track.”

China initially agreed to provide virus samples to the United States but later refused to do so.

Beijing also refused to allow U.S. and international virus and disease specialists to visit Wuhan for several weeks after the outbreak, which began in December. The Chinese government formally acknowledged the outbreak in late January, further limiting the ability to determine the origin of the virus.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed reports that the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab. It said World Health Organization officials have “repeatedly stated that there is no evidence showing the virus was made in a lab.”

But other foreign leaders, including British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and French President Emmanuel Macron are echoing U.S. complaints about China’s actions. Mr. Macron on Thursday ridiculed claims that China’s authoritarian government had done a better job dealing with the pandemic.

“Let’s not be so naive as to say China has been much better at handling this,” the French leader told Britain’s Financial Times in an interview. “We don’t know — there are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about.”

Congressional Republicans are backing Mr. Trump’s get-tough approach to China.

Rep. Ron Wright of Texas and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey filed legislation Friday that says Americans duped by Chinese misinformation over the coronavirus could sue the Chinese government in U.S. courts. The bill strips China and any other country that misleads the World Health Organization of sovereign immunity, giving Americans the ability to pursue Beijing in court.

Mr. Trump has been unwilling to criticize Chinese President Xi Jinping directly, however.

After a March 27 phone call, the president tweeted: “Discussed in great detail the CoronaVirus that is ravaging large parts of our Planet. China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus. We are working closely together. Much respect!”

On Jan. 24, as the virus consumed Wuhan, he tweeted: “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

Pressed at the Sunday briefing on why he spoke highly of Mr. Xi at the time, the president said he was happy with his trade deal with China but got upset when the virus emerged.

“Then we found out about the plague,” he said, in a testy exchange with a CNN reporter.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, is highlighting that tweet in an ad that says Mr. Trump fumbled his response to the pandemic. The clip also highlights Mr. Biden’s calls from a late-February debate stage to get U.S. investigators into China.

The Trump campaign says Mr. Biden is the one who is soft on China and has cited the former vice president’s failure to embrace the administration’s ban on foreign nationals who had traveled to China within 14 days.

Mr. Trump imposed the restrictions on Jan. 31. The virus may have been circulating already or come in from elsewhere in February and March, though Mr. Trump’s move is widely credited with preventing a deeper problem.

• Stephen Dinan, Rowan Scarborough and David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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