with Brent D. Griffiths
ON OFFENSE: President Trump and his top officials are sharpening their attacks on China, aggressively seeking to blame the country where the novel coronavirus began and more frequently repeating unsubstantiated claims the disease started in a laboratory in Wuhan.
The de facto spokesman for the blame China crowd is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who claimed yesterday there was “enormous evidence” the virus originated in a Wuhan lab. But he declined to elaborate: “I'm not allowed to tell you that,” Pompeo said on ABC News's “This Week.”
During a Fox News town hall last night at the Lincoln Memorial, Trump repeated the claim without evidence, saying he thought China “made a horrible mistake and didn't want to admit” the virus came from the Wuhan lab. Last week, Trump said he had seen intelligence supporting the lab theory but was “not allowed” to elaborate.
- “There’s a lot of theories,” Trump said, “but we have people looking at it very, very strongly. Scientific people, intelligence people and others.”
The facts: Scientists and some government officials have for months floated varying ideas on the outbreak's origin. But as the Trump administration and the president's reelection campaign have moved to shift blame to China from the White House's own response to the virus, the unproven theory the disease was hatched in an accident at a Wuhan lab has gained traction. Never-mind that a growing body of scientific evidence shows the virus was the product of a “natural process.”
The president's own intelligence apparatus has yet to find any evidence supporting the lab theory:
- DNI: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an unusual public statement last week about the ongoing U.S. investigation into the outbreak's origins: “The entire Intelligence Community has been consistently providing critical support to U.S. policymakers and those responding to the covid-19 virus, which originated in China. The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the covid-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.”
- They added: “The IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
- “The C.I.A. has yet to unearth any data beyond circumstantial evidence to bolster the lab theory, according to current and former government officials, and the agency has told policymakers it lacks enough information to either affirm or refute it,” reported the New York Times's Mark Mazzetti, Julian Barnes, Edward Wong, and Adam Goldman.
‘Conclusion shopping': Mazzetti, Barnes, Wong, and Goldman reported that senior 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.”
- “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.”
- “A former intelligence official described senior aides’ repeated emphasis of the lab theory as ‘conclusion shopping,’ a disparaging term among analysts that has echoes of the Bush administration’s 2002 push for assessments saying that Iraq had weapons of mass of destruction and links to al-Qaeda, perhaps the most notorious example of the politicization of intelligence,” they report.
RADDATZ: Do you believe coronavirus was man-made?— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 3, 2020
POMPEO: The best experts seem to think so
R: But the DNI says the consensus is it wasn't
P: That's right. I agree with that
R: So to be clear, which is it?
P: What's important is the Communist Party could've prevented this pic.twitter.com/uR608JZNFE
Payback politics: Amid already strained relations, Trump has “fumed” to aides about China for “withholding information about the virus” and failing to contain it — “and has discussed enacting dramatic measures that would probably lead to retaliation by Beijing,” our colleagues Jeff Stein, Carol Leonnig, Josh Dawsey and Gerry Shih reported last week. Senior officials across agencies were expected to meet last week to develop retaliatory measures, two officials confirmed to our colleagues.
- Some of the options: “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.”
- Or: “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,” per Jeff, Carol, Josh and Gerry.
- “Other administration officials are warning Trump against the push to punish China, saying the country is sending supplies to help the American response.”
For their part, the Chinese government has fueled the suspicions. Chinese officials have rejected calls for an investigation into the source of the virus, pushed conspiracy theories the virus originated in the U.S., and Chinese diplomats have issued critical and unhelpful statements to other countries. The response has sparked growing global resentment as countries around the world, also impacted by the pandemic, have echoed calls for a China investigation.
- “With clear encouragement from President Xi Jinping and the powerful Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party, a younger generation of Chinese diplomats have been proving their loyalty with defiantly nationalist and sometimes threatening messages in the countries where they are based,” the New York Times's Steve Erlanger reports.
- “As China started getting control over the virus and started this health diplomacy, it could have been the opportunity for China to emphasize its compassionate side and rebuild trust and its reputation as a responsible global power,” Susan Shirk, the director of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, told Erlanger. “But that diplomatic effort got hijacked by the Propaganda Department of the party, with a much more assertive effort to leverage their assistance to get praise for China as a country and a system and its performance in stopping the spread of the virus.”
However, these same leaders who have called for an investigation into China's response have also dismissed Trump's claim the virus could have been created in a lab:
- Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called for a global inquiry into the outbreak but said there's no evidence the disease came from a lab: “What we have before us doesn’t suggest that is the likely source,” Morrison said on Friday.
- French President Emmanuel Macron has questioned China's transparency and handling of the outbreak but his office released a statement earlier in April saying “there is to this day no factual evidence corroborating the information recently circulating in the United States press that establishes a link between the origins of covid-19 and the work of the P4 laboratory of Wuhan, China.”
- The World Health Organization responded to Trump's claims Friday: “We have listened again and again to numerous scientists who have looked at the sequences and looked at this virus. We are assured that this virus is natural in origin,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO emergency response chief. “What is important is that we establish what that natural host for this virus is … how the animal-human species barrier was breached."
Outside the Beltway
TRUMP REVISES DEATH TOLL: The president "scaled up the estimate he has used for the number of expected dead — projecting that the U.S. toll may be as high as 100,000, up from his prior prediction of 65,000 — while emphasizing that he takes the novel coronavirus seriously and noting that three of his friends have died after contracting it,” Felicia Sonmez, Meryl Kornfield and Katie Mettler report.
- “A very stable genius” meets “The Great Emancipator”: The president made his comments during a live Fox News town hall inside the Lincoln Memorial, a setting some criticized. An exasperated Daniel Dale of CNN declared it was hard to keep up with the president's false and misleading claims made in the shadow of Honest Abe.
SIXTEEN STATES ARE EASING RESTRICTIONS: Governors in 16 states are easing back on stay-at- home orders as more of America today begins to reopen. Trump said its safe for states to do so, though some governors continue to be more aggressive than White House guidelines entail.
Here's what the current situation looks like, according to a Power Up analysis courtesy of Daniela Santamarina.
Trump continued to pressure states that are being more cautious: “All those people out there that are protesting, they're right,” the president said during the town hall. “They want to go back to work. We want to go back to work quickly, but safely. And that's what's happening.”
- Deborah Birx, one of the president's top health advisers, had this to say about protesters in Michigan: “It's devastatingly worrisome to me personally because if they go home and infect their grandmother or their grandfather who has a comorbid condition and they have a serious or a very — or an unfortunate outcome, they will feel guilty for the rest of our lives,” Birx told Fox News's Chris Wallace earlier in the day.
At The White House
TRUMP WAS DESPERATE TO REOPEN: “The span of 34 days between March 29, when [the president] agreed to extend strict social-distancing guidelines, and this past week, when he celebrated the reopening of some states as a harbinger of economic revival, tells a story of desperation and dysfunction,” Philip Rucker, Josh Dawsey, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Robert Costa and Lena H. Sun report in a tour-de-force of must-read reporting.
The desire to reopen was so crucial the White House developed its own ‘econometric’ model: “Many White House aides interpreted the analysis as predicting that the daily death count would peak in mid-April before dropping off substantially, and that there would be far fewer fatalities than initially foreseen, according to six people briefed on it,” our colleagues write of a model created by former Trump economic adviser Kevin Hassett's team.
- Hassett has no experience with infectious diseases: “Although Hassett denied that he ever projected the number of dead, other senior administration officials said his presentations characterized the count as lower than commonly forecast — and that it was embraced inside the West Wing by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and other powerful aides helping to oversee the government’s pandemic response.”
The president's inconsistent message left governors in the lurch: “Though administration health officials produced detailed guidelines for reopening, those released by Trump were intentionally vague and devoid of clear metrics, making it easier for the president to avoid responsibility and harder for local leaders to interpret,” our colleagues write.
BIDEN ALLEGATION CHALLENGES #METOO: “Democrats and women’s activists, eager to unseat a president they consider deeply misogynistic, are facing tough decisions over whether to stick by Biden or distance themselves — and whether to redefine what emerged as a stark rallying cry after centuries of injustice: ‘Believe women,’” Annie Linskey and Sean Sullivan report of the movement's response to Tara Reade's allegations that Joe Biden sexually assaulted her 27 years ago.
- The former vice president called the allegations “untrue”: “Asked to comment for Annie and Sean's article, Biden’s campaign pointed to remarks from the candidate’s fundraiser Friday night denying the accusation.
- But the campaign adding it is appropriate for Reade’s claims to be investigated. "‘It isn’t enough just to simply take my word for it and to dismiss it out of hand,’ Biden said during the virtual event,” our colleagues write. "‘Frankly, that shouldn’t be enough for anyone, because we know that this sort of approach is exactly how the culture of abuse has been allowed to fester for so long.'"
RAISING THE VEEPSTAKES: “Biden himself has increasingly pushed into the political foreground the overwhelming reason that his choice may be the most consequential in decades: the expectation, downplayed but not exactly denied by the Biden campaign, that the 77-year-old would be a one-term president. If that turns out to be the case, his running mate now could well be leading the Democratic ticket in four years,” the New York Times's Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns report.
Is Biden, finally, ready to pass the torch?: “His references to serving as a transitional figure in the party, and the yearslong public health and economic recovery that the virus may require, have left many Democrats with the belief that, at age 82 in 2024, he would pass the party’s torch to his vice president,” the Times reports.
- 👀: “Joe being 77, I think people are going to look to see who is the person who could be the next president,” said Harry M. Reid, the Democratic former Senate majority leader told the Times. Reid called Biden’s decision the most significant in any election cycle I’ve seen.”
Veep Watch: “Sen. Elizabeth Warren is well atop Democratic voters' list of those who should be considered for vice president — with 71 percent saying she should be — and Warren also outpaces other possible picks by a wide margin as their first choice for the job: Warren (Mass.) at 36 percent first choice, to California Sen. Kamala D. Harris' 19 percent, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams at 14 percent, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar at 13 percent. No one else gets over 4 percent,” CBS News's Anthony Salvanto, Jennifer De Pinto, Kabir Khanna and Fred Backus report of the network's latest poll of registered Democratic voters.
- Warren and Biden slam Trump over lack of oversight on coronavirus stimulus funds: “Trump seems to think he can direct funding for the response to this crisis based on which politicians are nice to him, which states he’s trying to win in November and which businesses he wants to enrich — all without any accountability. We have a different view,” the pair wrote in an op-ed for McClatchy newspapers.
THE LATEST IN THE DMV: “Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) pushed back against pressure to lift his stay-at-home order, saying he respects the rights of demonstrators who gathered over the weekend to protest the restrictions but that it is too soon to safely reopen the state,” Ann E. Marimow, Rebecca Tan and Erin Cox report.
- Maryland canceled a contract for personal protective equipment with a well-connected GOP firm, Blue Flame, and referred the matter to the state attorney general.
- There have been 2,192 deaths and 49,149 confirmed cases of the virus in the region: “On a positive note, for the third consecutive day the number of covid-19 patients hospitalized statewide in Maryland decreased. As of Sunday, there were 1,635 patients in the hospital, the lowest number in five days,” our colleagues write.
The Senate returns: “Business gets underway [tonight] with a vote to confirm a new inspector general for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, while Senate committees will move ahead on more of [Trump’s] nominees, including a controversial pick for the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit,” Mike DeBonis and Paul Kane report.
In the Media
WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW:
Stephen Miller was already primed to restrict immigration: “From the early days of the Trump administration, [Miller], the president’s chief adviser on immigration, has repeatedly tried to use an obscure law designed to protect the nation from diseases overseas as a way to tighten the borders. The question was, which disease?” the Times's Caitlin Dickerson and Michael D. Shear report.
The Supreme Court makes history: “[This morning], Washington lawyer Lisa S. Blatt will pull out her favorite suit, put on her lucky, understated jewelry and stride to the lectern to address the justices of the United States Supreme Court. In her dining room. On the telephone,” Robert Barnes reports of the high court holding oral arguments via teleconference and for the first time broadcasting those debates live.
Jordan says infamous “Republicans buy sneakers, too” comment was made in jest: “Jordan, who has largely stayed away from any political commentary throughout his public life, didn't back away from the statement -- which came during the 1990 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina between incumbent Republican Jesse Helms and Democrat challenger Harvey Gantt -- in the ['The Last Dance' documentary] saying it was made in jest,” ESPN's Tim Bontemps reports.
- He never wanted to be like Ali.: “I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in. But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player,” Jordan said in the latest episode of the documentary. "I wasn't a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That's where my energy was." Ali, of course, took his opposition to the Vietnam War all the way to the Supreme Court.