Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) makes just such an argument in a new Fox News op-ed, suggesting that earlier validation of the lab leak theory might have recast the 2020 race (and seemingly, by implication, have helped Donald Trump win reelection).
“There is no doubt in my mind the combination of prominent scientists coming out strongly against the lab leak theory, along with officials from the State Department shutting down additional inquiries, ended up being two of the most consequential events in the 2020 election cycle,” Graham writes.
He adds: “If COVID-19 had come about due to a Chinese lab leak, the top question on voters’ minds in the 2020 election would have become who was going to stand up to China. Which candidate would hold the Chinese accountable for unleashing the COVID-19 plague on the world?”
Graham reasons that this candidate would have been Trump.
Despite Graham’s lack of doubt, there is a whole lot of guesswork involved in reaching such a conclusion. One should always be wary when those analyzing elections place so much weight behind a counterfactual. There’s just no way to know how it would have played out. Further, are we talking about a proven lab leak theory, or just a general recognition that the theory was more plausible than scientists and much of the media coverage suggested?
Graham’s case seems to rest upon the former — he says, “If COVID-19 had come about due to a Chinese lab leak” — which is still a massive what-if. Even if all the resources of the U.S. government and the international community were marshaled behind proving or disproving the theory, China has proved adept at concealing details of the outbreak. There also remains a very large chance that the lab leak theory wasn’t true. (We really have no new, hard evidence that it was — just a recalibration of the conventional wisdom.) Perhaps additional scrutiny might have validated the natural-origin theory, which scientists generally still regard as more plausible.
The other thing about counterfactuals regarding things like the 2020 election is that it isn’t difficult to argue they are plausible. The race was decided by a closer margin than many people realize: 43,000 votes across three states — 0.6 percentage points or less in the three decisive states. Shift the vote uniformly by less than 1 percentage point nationwide, and it’s a second term for Trump.
It was similarly plausible after the 2016 election to make all kinds of cases about what might have swung that race, given that the decisive states were similarly close. Did Russia’s interference move things that one point? Did James Comey’s late announcement? Hillary Clinton also mentioned misogyny. If any of those things didn’t exist, might Clinton have won? Sure. But we’ll never know.
As for Graham’s case, there is reason for skepticism.
For one, over Trump’s four years, not much of anything moved his poll numbers, in which negative views were consistently higher than positive ones by double digits. There is plenty of reason to believe that his response to the coronavirus pandemic might have sealed his fate, but when the virus worked its way to the United States, his average approval rating was around 40 percent. On Election Day, it was between 44 percent and 45 percent. Could those numbers have been better? Of course. Perhaps more people hypothetically focusing blame on China rather than Trump’s coronavirus response would have helped him.
But it’s also clear that plenty of people did blame China and even wanted to get tough on it. A Pew Research Center poll in the summer of 2020 showed unfavorable views of China rising significantly, to 73 percent. And 78 percent either blamed China a “great deal” or a “fair amount” for the global spread of the virus.
Some have been skeptical that a proven lab leak would truly matter, given China’s well-established role in spreading the virus. It probably would, at least to some degree, given the even greater coverup that would have entailed and the increased negligence it would demonstrate. But it’s not like people were giving a China a pass.
Which brings us to Trump’s role. Theories like Graham’s essentially relegate Trump and his top officials to bystanders in all of this. Graham writes that “there may have been a ‘Deep State’ science department which put an outcome — dismissal of the lab leak theory — over science.” This appears to refer to a Vanity Fair report last week that a State Department assistant secretary warned people off pursuing the lab leak theory because it would “‘open a can of worms’ if it continued.”
But couldn’t Trump have done more? Couldn’t Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have insisted that his department get to the truth?
Both men, in the spring of 2020, played up the idea of a lab leak and even suggested there was compelling evidence to back it up. Pompeo said “there’s enormous evidence that this is where this began.” But that enormous evidence was never produced, for some reason. What’s more, the idea of a lab leak faded from their public comments. If this was truly a valid idea with evidence behind it, why not keep playing it up? Why not release the evidence Trump and Pompeo cited?
Each man had both power and a public platform to ensure this stayed on the front burner, but they didn’t take advantage. Trump seemed more interested in provoking by labeling the coronavirus the “China virus” than in pushing the lab leak theory. We only learned a couple weeks ago about an official State Department effort to examine the issue.
It’s valid to criticize the media and the scientific community for being too dismissive of the lab leak theory. But at some point, perhaps there should be some accountability for those in charge of the entities that could have put some meat on the bones of that theory. Trump and Pompeo had every motivation to continue pushing the theory and to get the government they controlled to truly try to prove it; they didn’t do so. And they had significantly more control over this than they did the other thing they have pushed as a supposed “deep state” effort to take down Trump: the Russia investigation (which was farmed out to a special counsel over whom Trump and his Justice Department had less control).
Whatever one thinks of Trump, he’s a master of raising issues on which he wants people to focus — through repetition. That simply didn’t happen in this case.
In the end, this looks like a whole lot of politically convenient hindsight being 20/20 and pretending someone else was in charge when this theory could have been investigated. It’s possible that more validation of the theory might have changed the calculus for a relevant number of voters in the 2020 election; it’s also evident that even those who could have benefited from that for some reason declined to press the case in ways that Graham now suggests might have changed history.