Trump released a statement Saturday listing things he was supposedly “right about.” On the list was the theory that “the Virus came from a Chinese lab.” He included this despite it still being far from proved.
Trump’s former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, after spending weeks playing up just how right he and Trump supposedly were, submitted to some tough questioning about it Sunday. Fox News’s Chris Wallace brought up an extremely valid question, which we’ve been emphasizing in this space: If this theory truly had lots of evidence behind it, as both Trump and Pompeo claimed, why did they never produce it? And, to the extent this was a valid theory, why didn’t they push harder?
“President Trump and his team, including you, had almost a year after covid-19 first came on the scene to really press Beijing on what the origins were, when the evidence was much fresher,” Wallace said. He noted the White House pulled out of the World Health Organization, which was criticized for being soft on China, but it wasn’t at all clear what else it did to apply pressure.
“What did President Trump and his administration, including the secretary of state, do to press China harder to get the evidence on where the covid-19 virus came from?” Wallace asked.
Pompeo didn’t offer much of anything. He disputed the premise of the question and said “we got very close to being able to make a laydown case for what actually happened.” But he didn’t say how.
“There’s an enormous amount of evidence that there was a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Pompeo said. “There’s a pile of evidence a hundred feet high. I have — I have high confidence that that’s the case.”
The problem? The evidence the Trump team had for that claim was never produced, even as the Trump team could have produced it whenever it wanted.
By late April/early May 2020, Trump said he had a high degree of confidence that the lab leak theory was true, and Pompeo said there was “enormous evidence” of it. Despite being in power for more than eight more months afterward, they never made such evidence public, nor did their intelligence community validate that “high confidence.” That’s despite them having all kinds of interest in producing evidence to feed Trump’s and Pompeo’s effort to cast blame on China for what they called the “China virus.”
But a look back reveals something arguably even more intriguing than that asymmetry: It’s that, despite both Trump and Pompeo having briefly played up the theory in the spring of 2020, they just as quickly dropped it, at least in their public comments.
Trump was basically baited into playing it up in the first place.
He spent the early portion of the pandemic praising China’s transparency. When he was asked in mid-April 2020 about China’s labs and their safety protocols, he punted, saying of his conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping: “I don’t want to discuss what I talked to him about the laboratory. I just don’t want to discuss it. It’s inappropriate right now.”
Two weeks later, though — after a Fox News report that intelligence was pointing in that direction — Trump leaned in. But rather than jump into it on his own, he was asked whether he had a “high degree of confidence” that the virus came from a lab. Trump agreed that he did, saying, “Yes, I have. Yes, I have.”
Pompeo, too, hadn’t really played up the possibility. Even in the days after the Fox report, he was asked about the theory and offered a general answer, saying that “we need to get to the bottom of it.”
But once Trump leaned into the idea, Pompeo was onboard, too. Pompeo told ABC News on May 3, 2020, “There’s enormous evidence that that’s where this began.”
But then a funny thing happened: Pompeo tempered that “enormous evidence” claim. Pressed on May 6 at a news conference on it, Pompeo downgraded it to “significant evidence that this came from the laboratory.” (He said the Trump administration had asked for access to the labs, but declined to say what Beijing’s response was.) That night on Fox Business host Lou Dobbs’s show, it was “likely”: “I’ve seen evidence that this likely came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Pompeo said.
Pressed the next day on CNBC about whether there was something beyond circumstantial evidence for the lab leak, Pompeo conceded some might not see it that way.
“You know this,” Pompeo said, “one man’s direct is another man’s circumstantial.”
By May 21, 2020, Pompeo was asked again about the origin, and apart from mentioning “what actually happened inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” he didn’t play up the evidence for the lab leak. He merely said we need to know how the virus came about.
For the next five months ahead of the 2020 election, both Pompeo and Trump effectively dropped the subject in their public comments. I had to look back to make sure that was the case, especially given how much pushing the theory suited Trump’s purposes. But it’s true. This was not a feature of Trump’s comments in the summer and fall. Basically, the best evidence we have for Trump leaning into the theory was when he was asked about it and agreed with the premise that he had “high confidence.” Otherwise, it wasn’t a point of emphasis for him at all.
That’s certainly a strange approach from an administration that claims it was right all along about this. Even if you acknowledge that pressure can be applied privately, why not do so publicly, too? If you’re convinced this is what happened, why not use it to blame China over and over again? It makes no sense, given the Trump team’s posture.
The simplest explanation is that they were freelancing just as much as anybody else — that there was little reason for “high confidence” and that there wasn’t actually “enormous evidence.” Trump made a habit in such news conferences of waltzing into conspiracy theorizing, and all appearances are that’s what happened here, with very little substantiation or follow-through.
Are we really to believe that they had good, solid evidence of this and not only never produced it (as Wallace noted) but also effectively dropped it as a topic of conversation? When they even had reason to keep it going? It just doesn’t make sense. What makes more sense is that this was an appealing theory for obvious reasons — to deflect from the administration’s shortcomings in its coronavirus response — but that they had basically nothing substantial to keep it going.
That doesn’t mean the theory wasn’t too easily dismissed. It just means Trump’s and Pompeo’s claims to have been right all along — on a theory they briefly played up and then just as quickly abandoned publicly — are less than meets the eye. And perhaps we should view those dismissals in that light.