The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump Jr. attacked people who praise China’s coronavirus response. Then President Trump praised it — again.

Despite his allies and his son trying paint others as China apologists, the president has repeatedly hailed China’s response and offered mealy-mouthed rebukes

President Trump has both praised China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak and criticized China for not being forthcoming enough about the virus. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

On Thursday afternoon, Donald Trump Jr. lashed out at people allegedly siding with China on the coronavirus. “Anyone praising China’s ‘leadership’ in responding [to] the virus should be scorned for being the authoritarian/communist propagandist that they are,” Trump Jr. tweeted.

By that logic, Trump Jr. might as well have called his father a communist propagandist.

Just 12 hours later, President Trump tweeted praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying after a phone call with him that Chinese leaders had “developed a strong understanding of the Virus. We are working closely together.” Trump added “Much respect!”

Trump has also more directly praised Xi’s leadership on the coronavirus — and done so frequently — over the course of the outbreak:

  • On Jan. 24, he tweeted: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.”
  • He said Feb. 7 that Xi was “strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus.” He said the same day he wasn’t concerned about the Chinese covering up the spread of the virus.
  • On Feb. 26, he said Xi was “working very hard, I have to say. He’s working very, very hard.”
  • On March 4, he said Xi was “working very, very hard in China” and suggested that Xi was getting the situation under control.

Of late, Trump has offered a somewhat tougher line on China, repeatedly pointing out that the virus originated there and for a time calling it the “Chinese virus,” before abandoning that controversial phrase in recent days. But Trump has also been given a series of opportunities to tee off on Xi and China, and he has declined to go after it with anything amounting to the vigor of his son and other allies.

At Thursday’s news briefing, for example, Trump rejected the accusation from an official in the Chinese Foreign Ministry that the virus originated in the United States, but he also downplayed the person’s stature in the Chinese government.

“It wasn’t [Xi],” Trump volunteered. “Somebody at a lower level — mid-level — we found out, pretty much.”

Trump has also continued to stop short of directly accusing China of a coverup or of manipulating its data, as his allies have, and has instead merely suggested that it’s an open question as to whether the numbers can be trusted.

“You don’t know what the numbers are in China,” Trump added Thursday. “China tells you numbers, and — I’m speaking to President Xi tonight, I believe — and we’ll have a good conversation, I’m sure. But you just don’t know, you know, what are the numbers.”

When a pro-Trump reporter at a briefing last week teed one up for Trump to bash the media for allegedly siding with Chinese propaganda, Trump took the opportunity to rail against the media — but didn’t at all address China’s role in spreading misinformation.

“Well, I think they do” side with China, Trump said. “I mean — I mean, they are siding with — they are siding with China. They are doing things that they shouldn’t be doing.” Then he watered down the significance of it, saying, “They’re siding with many others; China’s the least of it.”

About the closest Trump has come to going hard after China was in Saturday’s news conference, in which he accused China of being “secretive.” But even there, he took care to not over-criticize and sprinkled in praise for Xi:

I have great respect for China. I like China. I think the people of China are incredible. I have a tremendous relationship with President Xi. I wish they could have told us earlier about what was going on inside. We didn’t know about it until it started coming out publicly, but I wish they could have told us earlier about it because we could have come up with a solution.
China was very secretive, okay? Very, very secretive. And that’s unfortunate. With that, I have great respect for that country. I have great respect for the leader of that country and like him. He’s a friend of mine. But I wish they were able to — I wish they would have told us earlier, Steve, that they were having a problem. Because they were having a big problem and they knew it, and I wish they could have given us an advanced warning.

“That’s unfortunate” isn’t exactly a broadside.

Trump has also retweeted his son accusing the World Health Organization of spreading “False Chinese Government Propaganda.”

But then Trump was asked to put that in his own words at Wednesday’s briefing, and he passed. He again offered a more mealy-mouthed version of what his supporters are saying, by attributing it to other people and suggesting that it was an open question rather than the indisputable truth.

“I think that a lot of people feel that it’s been very unfair — it’s very much sided with China, and a lot of people are not happy about it,” Trump said. “At the same time, Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and myself and other people — there are people on there that we like and we know. A lot of, I think, your friends are on there. A lot of good people. A lot of good professionals. I don’t know.”

Trump then urged Fauci to weigh in: “It’d be interesting to hear if you’d like to talk about the World — WHO. But the fact is that I have heard for years that that is very much biased toward China, so I don’t know.”

Even after his call with Xi late Thursday, the White House gave no indication that he had gotten tough with China for its handling of the coronavirus. Instead, it just said that “both leaders reiterated their commitment to cooperate to protect lives and livelihoods. The two leaders agreed to work together to defeat the coronavirus pandemic and restore global health and prosperity.”

And even Trump’s use of “Chinese virus” — which he has now abandoned despite his supporters going big on it — seemed more calculated at arguing that this wasn’t his own fault rather than that the Chinese did something wrong.

There may be a bit of a good-cop, bad-cop thing going on here — to the extent that this reflects anything amounting a strategy. While Trump’s supporters rail against China and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offers very tough comments, Trump has been careful to mind his relationship with the president he’s currently engaged in a trade war with.

But at the very least, there is some real dissonance in just how much blame China deserves. If the administration and Trump’s supporters really want to get tough on China, what better way than to have the president himself truly get tough in his rhetoric and force some accountability from Beijing. Trump hasn’t even come close to taking a firm stand on that.

And when people like his son accuse others and the media of siding with China even as Trump himself is saying nice things about Xi, it truly rings hollow.