As the coronavirus pandemic has spread around the globe, the ad battle for the U.S. presidency has increasingly centered on one issue: Who is a bigger toady for China?

To a striking degree, the campaigns of President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden — and groups that support or oppose them — increasingly are attacking each other with common themes. Both sides pin a lot of blame on China for failing to act quickly to stem the virus — or failing to communicate with the rest of the world more clearly. But then they argue that their opponent cannot be trusted to deal with China.

Both sides have a rich trove of material to work with. The Trump campaign has mined years of Biden statements on China, dating back to when he was vice president. It also highlights the business dealings in China of Hunter Biden, his son. The Biden campaign has fresher material — the many of weeks of Trump saying in January and February that he trusted the Chinese government was doing what it could to halt the outbreak.

We’re going to look at these themes through four video ads — two by the Trump campaign, one by the Biden campaign and one by the Bulwark, an anti-Trump group started by Republicans. We normally do not post full ads without breaking down what is misleading, but in this case we will make an exception so readers can see them in full. We will identify many of the misleading claims along the way.

President Trump's reelection campaign released an ad on May 11 accusing former vice president Joe Biden of close ties with China. (The Washington Post)

China is at fault

Both candidates appear to agree that the Chinese mishandled the virus, allowing it to spread around the globe. “One nation deserves the blame: China,” says one Trump ad. “They lied about it, covered it up.”

Biden’s ads are not as blunt, but one ad features footage of Biden saying he would have demanded the Chinese allow U.S. experts to investigate early in the crisis. (The clip is from a primary debate on Feb. 25. As we have noted, that was a few days after a World Health Organization mission traveled to Wuhan.)

The Bulwark ad refers to how the “Chinese were covering up the seriousness of the virus.” (The Chinese government denies it did so, but its response has certainly raised questions about how transparent it was about the nature of the novel coronavirus.)

Former vice president Joe Biden's election campaign released an ad on April 18 criticizing President Trump's response to the coronavirus outbreak. (The Washington Post)

The other guy blew it — Biden’s version

Biden’s ad milks Trump’s happy talk about China’s coronavirus response, which lasted two months after the first reports of a possible outbreak. “He failed to act” opens the Biden ad with an image of Trump at the lectern. “Trump rolled over for the Chinese. He took their word for it.”

The ad then cites Trump’s tweets about China’s “transparency” and some of Trump’s remarks, such as: “It’s a tough situation. I think they are doing a very good job. … I think that China will do a very good job.”

The ad claims, “Trump never got a CDC team on the ground in China.” But it does not mention that a medical officer from the Centers for Disease Control’s influenza division was part of the WHO mission to China.

Similarly, the ad via the Bulwark also features Trump quotes praising China, focusing on one particular day — Feb. 7 — that it says “will define Trump’s failures in responding to the coronavirus.” It shows a clip of Trump being asked if he was worried China was covering up the virus.

“No,” Trump responds. “Late last night, I had a good talk with President Xi. I think they are doing a very professional job.” The ad charges that Trump’s answer “comes straight out of China’s propaganda playbook.”

The ad then makes a misleading claim for which we have previously awarded Two Pinocchios — that the U.S. government shipped more than 17 tons of masks and medical supplies to China that day. The impression left by the ad is that these were U.S. government goods, shipped on Trump’s order. In reality, these were donations by private charities and public companies at a time when the U.S. case count was still low. All the State Department did was supply planes — headed to Wuhan to pick up 800 consulate workers, their families and other Americans — that would have been empty anyway.

The Bulwark released an ad on April 23 criticizing President Trump's response to the coronavirus outbreak. (The Washington Post)

The other guy blew it — Trump’s version

Trump’s ads offer a mixture of old Biden quotes on China and a knock on Biden supposedly opposing Trump’s decision to impose a limited ban on travel from China by non-U. S. citizens. The ads often highlight Biden decrying Trump’s “hysterical xenophobia.”

This is a comment Biden made the day Trump announced the travel restrictions. But whether Biden was specifically speaking about Trump’s travel restrictions is open to debate. He did not specifically mention the travel restrictions on China during the remarks and his campaign has since said he supported the effort as a way to buy time.

Highlighting the travel restrictions, announced on Jan. 30, is also an effort by Trump to counter the narrative that he acted too slowly. Certainly, he can point to this particular action, which went against the WHO’s guidelines. But the administration’s failure to quickly ramp up nationwide testing in February is never mentioned.

One of the Trump ads even clips a quote by CBS correspondent Major Garrett when he starts to note this uncomfortable fact. The ad quotes Garrett as saying “that travel restriction on China, as every public health official we talked to, bought the country time,” but leaves off the rest of his comment: “What’s the problem now? We don’t have enough tests. They’re not being administered fast enough. And we don’t know how many cases the country has. That’s why you see dominoes falling all day today across sporting venues, colleges, athletic events. People are shutting things down. Because they don’t know what the risk factor is. One of the reasons for that is because the administration was slow to move on testing.”

The Trump ads also draw on a vast store of Biden quotes from when he was vice president to suggest he is soft on China. (One ad even declares him to be “China’s puppet.”) But the clips often lack context.

  • There’s a 2016 quote: “Growth in China is overwhelmingly in our interest.” (The clip leaves out Biden’s next sentence: “But responsible competition is equally as much in our interest.”)
  • There’s a 2015 quote: “What a beautiful history we wrote together.” (That’s from a toast at a lunch at the State Department, when Biden was looking forward, not backward: “I’d like to make a toast, and — to the hope and expectation that 50 years from now our great grandchildren will look back and say what a beautiful history we wrote together.”)

As one can imagine, there also are plenty of quotes that the Biden team could draw from when Trump praised Chinese leaders when he was in Beijing. Trump routinely knocked his predecessors and said he did not blame China for trying to take advantage of the United States with unfair trade practices. “I don’t blame China. After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the sake of its citizens?” he said in November 2017. “I give China great credit.”

It will be interesting to see if such remarks show up in future Biden ads, but for the moment the Biden campaign appears content with Trump’s more recent remarks related to the pandemic.

Finally, the Trump ads often feature Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, who until recently was on the advisory board of a Chinese American fund called BHR Partners that received backing from Chinese financial institutions. One ad features a Fox personality, Stu Varney, saying, “Biden’s son inked a billion-dollar deal with a subsidiary of the Bank of China.” (Not really — the fund said it would try to raise $1.5 billion for investments outside China.) The “puppet” ad, without citing a source, features a ludicrously false claim: “Biden’s son received over $1 billion from a Chinese government-owned state bank.” (Hunter Biden’s attorney has said in 2017 he took an equity stake worth $420,000.)

President Trump's reelection campaign released an ad on May 12 accusing former vice president Joe Biden of being “weak on China." (The Washington Post)

The Bottom Line

Trump probably has a bigger burden in this battle over China because his quotes praising the Chinese response to the coronavirus are so recent — and the opposite of the tough-on-China message he now has adopted. The Trump campaign can try to make the case that Biden is in the pocket of the Chinese or is soft on China, but most of the Biden quotes are old and there is no clip of Biden actually criticizing the travel restrictions imposed by Trump.

Trump might have more traction with the charges against Hunter Biden. Yet voters could view that as an old story (and Hunter Biden is not running for president).

But fasten your seat belts — there’s still six months to go before the election.

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The Washington Post Fact Checker is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the covid-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.