But there’s one person who didn’t have time for blaming China even as of a couple of weeks ago: Trump himself.
The most speculative conspiracies about China have emanated from Trump allies like Jerry Falwell Jr. and conservative journalists. But even in his Oval Office address Wednesday night, Trump conspicuously emphasized that the virus “started in China” and called it a “foreign virus.” He also said at Friday’s news conference, “They know where it came from; we all know where it came from.”
White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien has even gone further. On Wednesday, he directly accused China of a coverup. “Unfortunately, rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up,” O’Brien said, adding, “The way that this started out in China, the way it was handled from the outset, was not right, it should have been handled differently.”
The claim is hardly ridiculous, given China’s alleged coverup of the SARS outbreak earlier this century. Judging by O’Brien’s and Trump’s comments Wednesday, this seems likely to be a point of emphasis. And their allies have certainly picked up the ball and run with it.
But if China lied to and duped all of us, you can count Trump among its dupes.
Early on, Trump assured repeatedly that China was working very hard to respond to the threat and praised President Xi Jinping for his “transparency.”
“The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency,” Trump tweeted Jan. 24. “It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
By Jan. 27, Trump said the United States was “in very close communication with China.” But he did so even as experts and even Trump administration officials complained about the lack of cooperation from the Chinese government. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has said the U.S. government offered in early January to send scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to Wuhan, but China declined to allow them.
By Feb. 7, Trump tweeted that Xi was “strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus” and that “he will be successful.” He again claimed against evidence that the two countries were “working closely” together.
The same day, most strikingly, Trump was given an opportunity to entertain the idea that China might not be as transparent as he apparently believed. And he rejected it out of hand:
Q: Are you concerned that China is covering up the full extent of coronavirus?TRUMP: No. China is working very hard. Late last night, I had a very good talk with President Xi, and we talked about -- mostly about the coronavirus. They’re working really hard, and I think they are doing a very professional job.
A month later, Trump’s own White House is now saying the opposite, and his allies are saying the very same Chinese president whose efforts Trump lauded and in whom Trump instilled so much confidence wasn’t worth the kind of plaudits he offered.
There’s certainly something to be said for new evidence emerging and changing your mind, but there’s also something to be said for being circumspect about praising an antagonistic foreign country — and one with a demonstrated, recent history of allegedly covering up the spread of a disease like this.
That goes double when your own administration has been frustrated by the lack of cooperation, which is something Trump was either unaware of at the time or didn’t care to emphasize because he wanted to put a good face on the threat posed by coronavirus. Through it all, Trump lent China credibility that his own White House now says it wasn’t worthy of.
This has been emblematic of Trump’s posture toward China, though. While he has played hardball in his trade war with Beijing, he has otherwise been effusive about Xi’s leadership and strained to avoid criticizing him, including when it comes to Hong Kong and human rights. (He has reportedly worried about any criticisms poisoning the well in ongoing trade negotiations.) The combination of that and Trump’s preferred optimism about the coronavirus appear to have combined to cause him to play down concerns about China’s stewardship of the situation in Wuhan.
But presidents should be judged by how discerning they are in these moments, and Trump clearly wasn’t very discerning about what China was up to — at least if you accept these new allegations against it as gospel. And as his White House and supporters push the idea that this is China’s fault and talk about how bad its actions were, it’s worth recalling how much Trump assured us the opposite was true.