— Former vice president Joe Biden, in remarks during a virtual CNN town hall, March 27, 2020
These comments open the window to an interesting topic — whether the Trump administration could have done more to gain access to information from China during the crucial early weeks of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China.
There are two issues we will explore: What did President Trump and the Trump administration do to gain access to China, and when did Biden say the United States should get experts into China?
(Note: We previously explored what happened to the White House pandemic office. Biden, in his remarks, gets the timing wrong.)
What did Trump do?
Biden’s language is a bit imprecise, and it could be interpreted that he is speaking about the Trump administration making “no effort.” His campaign says he was talking about Trump, as the sentence before and after referred to Trump. The Biden campaign argues the public record is clear that Trump did not put pressure on Chinese President Xi Jinping to allow U.S. health experts into the country.
The White House says that Biden is wrong and that Trump personally raised the issue in a conversation with Xi.
“The Trump Administration has proactively and persistently engaged China from the start,” a senior administration official told The Fact Checker. “When the United States learned about the outbreak in Wuhan in early January, the Trump Administration immediately offered to send our premier infectious disease experts to China, which was refused. The United States was one of the first nations to offer help to the Chinese people. President Trump personally reiterated this offer to General Secretary Xi Jinping.”
Not everything is obviously apparent in diplomacy. Much can happen behind the scenes, but public comments can also be part of a diplomatic push. But sometimes tougher language is delegated to lower-level officials, not the president. So here’s what the public record shows.
Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, learned on Dec. 31 of a “cluster of 27 cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology reported in Wuhan, China,” according to Katherine McKeogh, press secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services.
On Jan. 3, Redfield emailed George Gao, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and spoke with him the same day, she said, citing his calendar entry.
The next day, Redfield emailed Gao, writing: “I would like to offer CDC technical experts in laboratory and epidemiology of respiratory infectious diseases to assist you and China CDC in identification of this unknown and possibly novel pathogen.” Two days later, he sent another email, attaching a formal letter offering CDC support, McKeogh said.
On Jan. 6, the Trump administration “offered to send a CDC team to China that could assist with these public health efforts,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar told reporters on Jan. 28. “I reiterated that offer when I spoke to China’s minister of health on Monday, and it was reiterated again via the World Health Organization today. We are urging China: More cooperation and transparency are the most important steps you can take toward a more effective response.”
Instead, Prescott said, “early on, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that he was concerned about anything but getting the trade deal.” Trump had signed an interim trade agreement with China — after months of tension — on Jan. 15. “I want to thank President Xi, a very, very good friend of mine,” Trump said at the signing.
Prescott noted that on Jan. 22, shortly after the first case was detected in the United States, Trump was asked in an interview about the coronavirus and he dismissed it. “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control,” he said.
The interviewer, Joe Kernen of CNBC, noted that China is not especially transparent: “Do you trust that we’re going to know everything we need to know from China?”
Trump replied: “I do. I do. I have a great relationship with President Xi. We just signed probably the biggest deal ever made.”
That same day, China announced it had imposed a sweeping lockdown on Wuhan, its seventh-largest city, in an effort to stem the outbreak. It was also 16 days after the CDC first sought access to China. “There is nothing in the public record or the readouts of the calls that support that the president was leaning on the Chinese to accept CDC personnel,” Prescott said.
On Jan. 27, Trump tweeted that an offer of help had been made.
On Jan. 31, Trump announced travel restrictions on non-U. S. citizens traveling from China, effective Feb. 2, with 11 exceptions. U.S. citizens could still travel from China but were subject to screening and a possible 14-day quarantine. Some flights were immediately suspended, but others continued for weeks at the discretion of the airlines.
The action angered China, which said the United States “inappropriately overreacted.”
CDC officials, meanwhile, were frustrated at the inability to get access. “What I can say is that we have folks ready to go to China as soon as that offer is finalized,” said Nancy Messonnier, the agency’s top infectious disease official, on Feb. 3. “I understand that there still are negotiations in process on that. And really, we are just waiting. As soon as we are allowed to go, we will be there. And, you know, we do have an expert already in the field as part of CDC’s continuing work with China. So, he’s already in the field and therefore could be there immediately. So, we are still waiting for that invitation.”
On Feb. 6, Trump and Xi spoke by telephone. Trump in a Twitter thread offered a rosy picture that included hope the virus would go away as the weather became warmer.
Trump told reporters most of his conversation concerned the coronavirus. “We’re working together,” he said. “But World Health is working with them. CDC is working with them. I had a great conversation last night with President Xi. It’s a tough situation. I think they’re doing a very good job.”
But behind the scenes, the Chinese initially would not invite Americans to join a planned WHO visit, even though the South China Morning Post reported that U.S. citizens accounted for “13 of the 25 names that the WHO submitted to China for the mission.” Eventually, U.S. experts were part of a team that also included specialists from Germany, Japan, Nigeria, Russia, Singapore and South Korea. The group finally visited Wuhan on Feb. 22.
Prescott said “the need for additional experts to go in was made even more urgent precisely because the capacity in our embassy was already depleted,” referring to a Reuters report that the CDC’s staff in Beijing was reduced from 47 to 14 people during the Trump administration. Reuters also reported that a medical epidemiologist embedded in China’s disease control agency left her post in July after the administration eliminated her position — a fact Biden mentioned, somewhat obliquely, in his CNN remarks.
McKeogh said the CDC had begun increasing staff in China before the outbreak. “When Director Redfield first learned of the virus, there were three U.S. direct hires, plus a deputy director on temporary deployment to China (which has continued to date), but in addition, about 10 locally employed from budget analysts to subject matter experts in flu, tuberculosis, and public health workforce, which expands our reach and workforce,” she said. “CDC often provides supplemental assistance for outbreaks from Atlanta or the region. CDC had the right staff to engage China and ability to provide technical assistance were it requested.”
In recent weeks, both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have further addressed those early interactions with China.
“I did ask him [Xi] whether or not we could send some people, and they didn’t want that -- out of pride," Trump said on March 22. "I did discuss that about sending our people in,” Trump said on March 22. “And, they didn’t really respond. We went again; they didn’t respond. If they went in, they would have been able to tell us — give us a much earlier indication.”
“At the very onset of this, when America first learned about this, we did our best to make sure that we had transparency and information,” Pompeo said on March 26. “We offered to send our expert medical providers in. We offered to make sure that we could provide whatever support they needed. And instead of cracking down on the virus in a timely fashion, they cracked down on information flow. They kicked journalists out. They punished those who were speaking about this inside of their own country.”
Strikingly, the word used in almost every administration statement is that the United States “offered” to provide experts. That’s not the same thing as “demanded.” Whether a demand was actually made is unclear, especially because we do not have access to transcripts of the conversations between Trump and Xi. But, clearly, despite Trump’s frequent claims of a great friendship with Xi, he could not get Xi to budge on this issue.
What did Biden say?
Biden suggests that early on he had been calling on China to admit U.S. experts. But the earliest example we can find is from the Democratic debate held on Feb. 25, a few days after the WHO mission finally reached Wuhan.
“And here’s the deal,” Biden said. “I would be on the phone with China and making it clear, we are going to need to be in your country; you have to be open; you have to be clear; we have to know what’s going on; we have to be there with you, and insist on it and insist, insist, insist.”
The Biden campaign points to two sections of an opinion article Biden published in USA Today on Jan. 27 as implicitly making the case for access for U.S. health experts.
The op-ed mostly recalls how the Obama administration handled the 2014 Ebola outbreak, but one line calls for U.S. leadership: “The United States must step forward to lead these efforts, because no other nation has the resources, the reach or the relationships to marshal an effective international response.” Then, the op-ed recalls how the Obama administration mobilized to send CDC staff to Africa.
But that’s not the same as explicitly calling for U.S. experts to gain access to China.
The Pinocchio Test
In both instances, Biden leans a little too hard on his skis. He could make a case that Trump’s efforts to gain access for medical experts to China lacked vigor or were ineffectual; he cannot say there was no effort. As for being foresighted enough to make this case early on, Biden did not explicitly call for it until near the end of February, so that appears exaggerated.
The administration at various levels sought access for CDC experts — and as noted earlier, an administration official, speaking not for attribution, says an offer to send staff was made at the presidential level. Whether Trump didn’t “put pressure” on Xi behind the scenes remains unclear, though Trump’s public comments and tweets do not indicate much pressure. But, given Chinese sensitivities, perhaps no amount of pressure would have worked. It’s a lesson in how relations between leaders do not make much difference when national interests are at stake.
With more precision in his language, Biden would have a better case. We wavered between Two or Three Pinocchios, as it’s a close call, but ultimately tipped toward Three.
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