The Wall Street Journal reports that Trump was advised twice in January to press China to be more transparent about the outbreak in Wuhan. But Trump ignored the advice:
Early this year, several of Mr. Trump’s political advisers inside and outside the campaign urged him to take on China more directly, which they argued would have bipartisan appeal. One idea they suggested was a special commission to investigate the origins of the virus and whether Beijing responded sufficiently to control the outbreak.Mr. Trump twice declined suggestions from his team in January to press [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] for more transparency about the virus’s causes and symptoms, in one case saying that the criticism could cause Beijing to be less helpful, said White House officials.
In fact, Trump didn’t just decline the suggestions; he actually went in the opposite direction. Trump repeatedly praised China’s coronavirus response through late February. And on two different occasions, he actually vouched for China’s transparency, despite the advice.
Trump did so voluntarily on Jan. 24, tweeting, “The United States greatly appreciates [China’s] efforts and transparency.” He was then asked directly on Feb. 7 whether he was “concerned that China is covering up the full extent of coronavirus.” He said flatly, “No. … They’re working really hard, and I think they are doing a very professional job.”
China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. 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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 24, 2020
The idea that Trump’s advisers were concerned about China’s lack of transparency around this time — even as Trump was vouching for it — isn’t totally new. The Washington Post’s Yasmeen Abutaleb and Josh Dawsey reported Feb. 16 that Trump’s comments praising China were making administration officials uncomfortable. Among them were Joseph Grogan, head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who said China could not be trusted, and Peter Navarro, Trump’s China-hawk trade adviser. Chief White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow even publicly contradicted Trump on Feb. 13, saying, “We are a little disappointed that we haven’t been invited in [to China], and we’re a little disappointed in the lack of transparency coming from the Chinese.”
The efforts of those around Trump to get him to be tougher on China have gradually paid some dividends, with Trump intermittently adopting a harsher tone — although often still not going as far as some of his allies have. Trump momentarily labeled it the “Chinese virus,” before abandoning that rhetoric in the face of criticism. He has regularly offered broad comments about how we know where the virus began and about how it could have been stopped earlier, although he often avoids invoking China directly.
One entity Trump has been willing to go after more strongly is the World Health Organization, which Trump has accused of being too friendly toward China. He has said the United States will withhold funding from the U.N. health agency.
But Trump’s and his allies’ chief criticism of the WHO — that it has been too friendly toward China — is one that could just as well be lodged at Trump himself early in the crisis. If the argument is that the WHO was too soft on China at the start, when it mattered most, what about Trump? If precious time was lost because the WHO was lending undue credibility to China’s statements and data about the virus and was not taking the situation seriously enough, what to make of a U.S. president who was in many ways echoing the line that China was on top of the situation — in direct contrast to his advisers?
Trump allies will argue that there was a difference. Trump, after all, is engaged in a delicate diplomatic dance involving a trade war — a trade war in which a phase-one agreement was signed in mid-January, even as the coronavirus was spreading in Wuhan. Trump may not have just feared that his criticism would hurt Chinese cooperation on the virus but also on further trade agreements. Even throughout the trade war, Trump has repeatedly made a point to lavish praise on Xi and to say that China’s success in taking advantage of the United States is not something to be derided, but rather that our focus should be on American leaders’ incompetence in the face of that.
But to some degree, this is a zero-sum game. The argument from Trump and (mostly) from his allies is that this alleged Chinese malfeasance needed to be called out early in the outbreak to prevent the spread of a deadly disease. Yet we’re increasingly learning it was something that was brought to Trump’s attention and that he was urged to do something about. He disregarded it. And what better message to send than a U.S. president saying that China was up to no good?
So when Trump says this could have been stopped earlier or that others like Biden have been too soft on China, it rings pretty hollow.