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Trump’s “China Virus” Pivot

Trump spent 50 days as Xi’s Beijing Bob, now he wants us to believe he’s tough on China.
by Jim Swift
March 23, 2020
Trump’s “China Virus” Pivot

It’s been reported in recent days that the U.S. intelligence community had warned in late January and early February that COVID-19 could be a “globe-encircling pandemic that could require governments to take swift actions to contain it.”  But despite those briefings, Donald Trump repeatedly downplayed the severity of the virus. Worse, it appears President Trump either seemed to believe Xi Jinping over U.S. officials, or at least pretended to—perhaps in order to protect his ego or the stock market. 

Regardless, the net effect was the president once again siding with a foreign dictator over his own intelligence officials on an issue of critical national importance. 

Now that President Trump has been forced to acknowledge reality, he has made a rhetorical pivot in order to make it seem as though he has been the one who was tough on China all along. This “tough on China” pivot is premised mainly on his willingness to troll the CCP by calling it the “China Virus,” something he began on March 16th after a month of calling it the “coronavirus.” 

But if you look at what President Trump actually told the public about China—and consider reports about how he handled the virus internally—you understand that this “China Virus” pivot comes from a place of extreme weakness and vulnerability. Because for two critical months as the crisis unfolded, nobody was a bigger Xi-leader than Donald J. Trump.

These months of Trump sucking up to Xi and toeing the CCP party line are critical because China is on the hook for COVID-19 and should be held fully accountable. For reasons that are as inexplicable today as they were in January, the American president took the word of an authoritarian regime that cannot, and should not, be trusted to operate in good faith. 

And America is now paying the price for his mistake.

On January 24, President Trump thanked President Xi Jinping for “transparency” and complimented the Chinese on their efforts to contain the coronavirus. For the next 50 days Trump proceeded to publicly praise Xi for his work on containing the coronavirus over a dozen times while privately insisting to his hollowed out national security team that drastic actions were not needed to contain the virus because he trusted the information out of China. 

Trump’s obsequious treatment of Xi continued until March 16, in spite of the video evidence coming out of Wuhan, the expert advice being provided by his intelligence teams,  and the virus’ spread on American shores. 

What follows is a run down of COVID-19 spin and flattery from Xi Jinping’s very own Beijing Bob: President Donald Trump.

On January 30, in an interview with Fox’s Peter Doocy, Trump said: “And we are in great shape. China is not in great shape right now, unfortunately. But they’re working very hard. We’ll see what happens. But we’re working very closely with China and other countries.” 

On January 31, President Trump barred foreign visitors who had visited China in the preceding days from entering the United States, an early decision that he keeps demanding credit for, even though every subsequent action has undermined this initial move. (Like, that the restriction was only on certain types of passengers, not necessarily flights.)

On February 7, Chinese scientist and whistleblower Li Wenliang died. That same day, President Trump praised Xi’s handling of COVID-19, saying

He is strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the coronavirus. He feels they are doing very well, even building hospitals in a matter of only days. Nothing is easy, but he will be successful, especially as the weather starts to warm & the virus hopefully becomes weaker, and then gone. Great discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation. We are working closely with China to help!

(It’s worth noting here that on March 19 the Trump campaign issued a press release accusing the Biden campaign of “siding with the Chinese” for noting the number of hospitals they had built, something that—as you see here—Trump lavishly praised Xi for.) 

That wasn’t the only praise Trump offered Xi on February 7: He also told North Carolinians Xi “has handled it really well.” Adding that “we’re helping wherever we can. But we have a great relationship. It’s incredible. They respect us again. They didn’t even respect us. What they were doing to us—they didn’t even respect us. They respect us again and we respect them.”

On February 10, China’s death toll had crested 800 making it worse than SARS in the early 2000s. Trump went on now-benched Fox Business host Trish Regan’s nighttime show, where he said this

Well, I think China is very, you know, professionally run, in the sense that they have everything under control. I really believe they are going to have it under control fairly soon.

 On February 14, Trump told the National Border Patrol Council’s members: 

I spoke with President Xi of China, and he’s working very hard on this. It’s a tremendous problem. But they’re very capable and they’ll—they’ll get to it. There’s a theory that, in April, when it gets warm—historically, that has been able to kill the virus. So we don’t know yet; we’re not sure yet. But that’s around the corner, so that’ll be a great thing in China and other places.

It’s unclear here whether Trump was referring to the week-old conversation with Xi, or whether the conversation he was describing was more recent.

On February 18, as he was departing for a west coast jaunt, Trump told reporters at Andrews Air Force Base:

I think President Xi is working very hard. As you know, I spoke with him recently. He’s working really hard. It’s a tough problem. I think he’s going to do—look, I’ve seen them build hospitals in a short period of time. I really believe he wants to get that done, and he wants to get it done fast. Yes, I think he’s doing it very professionally. We’re also working with him and helping him, as of the last few days, as you know.

On February 23, President Trump was asked at a Marine One departure  before a trip to India whether he thought “President Xi should be doing something different.” Trump replied:

No, I think President Xi is working very, very hard. I spoke to him. He’s working very hard. I think he’s doing a very good job. It’s a big problem. But President Xi loves his country. He’s working very hard to solve the problem and he will solve the problem. Okay?

On February 25, Trump was in India, where he told business leaders that Xi was “working very hard” and that it looked “like they’re getting it under control more and more.” Back in the U.S. on February 26, he reiterated he thought Xi was “working very hard.” This was just as Italy’s outbreak had begun:

I spoke with President Xi.  We had a great talk. He’s working very hard, I have to say. He’s working very, very hard. And if you can count on the reports coming out of China, that spread has gone down quite a bit.  The infection seems to have gone down over the last two days. As opposed to getting larger, it’s actually gotten smaller. In one instance where we think we can be—it’s somewhat reliable, it seems to have gotten quite a bit smaller.

In that same press conference, Trump told reporters that Xi Jinping was:

. . . working very hard.  It would be very easy for me to say, you know—it doesn’t matter what I say, really. I can tell you, he is working—I had a long talk with him the other night. He is working really, really hard. He wants it to go away from China and go away fast, and he wants to get back to business as usual.

It remains unclear from any of these statements when “the other night” was or how many times Trump spoke with Xi in the previous few weeks. 

On March 3, Trump visited the National Institutes of Health, where he spent the day with Dr. Anthony Fauci. At a press conference there, Trump was asked about the possibility of further travel restrictions. Here, too, he tossed out some random praise of China:

Well, we’re looking at different areas, and we’ll make that decision with these professionals. We made an early decision based on a little bit of luck, I suspect, but that was the original decision on China itself. And China, in all fairness to them, they never blamed us. It was, you know, a tough decision for them, but they fully understood. They were very reasonable about it.

On March 4, Trump phoned in to Sean Hannity’s show on Fox where he told listeners: “We’re dealing with China. President Xi, who I speak with, President Xi is working very, very hard in China. They have a big problem. But their numbers have gotten much better with respect to the coronavirus, very much better.”

On March 6, President Trump visited the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, where he held a bizarre press conference in which he told reporters about his Fox ratings and once again praised China on their progress:

And I’ve heard the numbers are getting much better in China, but I hear the numbers are getting much better in Italy, et cetera, et cetera. But what I hear—so we have 240 cases, 11 deaths. Everything is too much and it’s true. I don’t want 11 deaths. I don’t want any deaths, right? But over the last long period of time, when people have the flu, you have an average of 36,000 people dying. I’ve never heard those numbers. I would—I would’ve been shocked. I would’ve said, “Does anybody die from the flu?” I didn’t know people died from the flu—36,000 people died.

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. In response, Trump restricted travel between the E.U. and the United States. He met with banking executives and while China was not a big topic of discussion Trump did say that he thought they were “healing” and floated the possibility that “we could start to think about getting back involved in that part of the world.” 

That night, he also addressed the country from the Oval Office and in this brief talk only mentioned China in the context of praising his earlier decision on travel restrictions. Instead he sought to blame the E.U.’s somewhat looser travel restrictions—rather than the Chinese regime—for the virus’s growth in the United States,. 

On March 13, President Trump declared a national emergency.

On March 14, at the daily COVID-19 press conference, Trump barely mentioned China, except to say: “So I just want to thank everybody. I think the press has been really—over the last 24 hours, I think the representation has really been very fair. For the most part, been very fair. We’re all in this together. It’s something that nobody expected. It came out of China, and it’s one of those things that happened. It’s nobody’s fault. We all—we all will solve this problem; we’ll solve it well. I think the American people have been incredible in the way they’ve acted.” 

On March 16, with the virus spiraling out of control (and four days after Joe Biden delivered a serious speech on the crisis), Trump abruptly changed his stance on China by rebranding the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.” 

On March 17, Trump held an open press meeting with hotel executives where, when discussing hotel vacancies repeated what Marriott CEO Arne M. Sorenson had said: “And this all started in China…”

Then Trump gestured to the reporters in the back of the room, “I hope you all heard that.”

At a press conference that same day, Trump was asked about his change in terminology for the coronavirus. His response: “Well, China was putting out information, which was false, that our military gave this to them. That was false. And rather than having an argument, I said I have to call it where it came from; it did come from China.”

Trump is no longer talking about how “professionally run” China is or testifying to what a tremendously hard worker Xi is or talking about what a great job China did on locking down their outbreak. There’s no more praise of China’s transparency, or communication with the U.S., or talk about how great Trump’s relationship with Xi is. Or boasting about how deeply China now respects America. 

Instead, Trump has pivoted to trying to blame China for the situation in America—which is fair!

From everything we know about China’s handling of the coronavirus—or the China Virus, or Captain Trips, or whatever the hell you want to call it—the Chinese regime’s response was at best flawed and at worst criminal. Chinese authorities punished doctors who tried to sound the alarm. Models suggest that had the Chinese government reacted just three weeks earlier, the spread of the virus might have been vastly reduced.

The problem isn’t that Trump is now trying to blame China—it’s that he spent nearly two months lapping up every line the Chinese government was selling and using his praise for the Chinese as a shield to excuse his not making adequate preparations here in America.

And because he’s Donald Trump, rather than owning up to his own failures, Trump and his flunkies are now running around and shamelessly accusing anyone who criticizes Trump’s handling of the crisis of regurgitating Chinese Communist propaganda.

What we don’t know is why did President Trump trusted China for so long, and told us that we could, too.

But we do know that if there was in fact a Chinese propaganda campaign to cover up their responsibility for spreading this pandemic, then their most effective propagandist was probably Donald Trump.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.