Why Trump is moving closer to punishing China for the coronavirus

For months, the story of official Washington’s stance towards China amid the coronavirus pandemic has been a bit of a split screen. On one side, China “hawks” have pushed for a range of measures to punish the country economically for its perceived mishandling of the crisis while President Trump has not seemed fully on board.

One example: during an April 3 interview with Yahoo Finance, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy laid into China, saying they “lied about” the virus just a couple days after Trump tweeted China has “developed a strong understanding of the Virus,” and adding “Much respect!”

But during an appearance on Thursday in the East Room of the White House, Trump seemed to pivot and reach a new level of antipathy toward China. He suggested the virus had originated in a lab in China and even said there was a chance the government there had “let it spread.”

President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House on Thursday. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

“It is going to be messy,” says James Carafano, vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s foreign policy institute, about the economic conflict to come. “There’s an enormous amount of anger at China right now and it’s bipartisan.” And it’s not just in Washington, he says – “it’s down into the roots of America.”

“He’s got to walk a fine line,” says Claude Barfield, a former consultant to the US Trade Representative. A complicated issue involving both trade concerns and public health has been made even more so because it’s “gotten all mixed up in presidential politics,” he said.

Barfield, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, sees what others have termed a “deep freeze” coming over U.S.-China relations. “I don’t think there’s any chance in hell that it will come before the election,” he said of any further trade deals.

How Trump’s rhetoric on the ‘lab in Wuhan’ changed

The Wuhan Institute of Virology has been a key issue in Republican circles for weeks. On April 16, Sen. Ted Cruz called for an investigation into whether the virus escaped from the lab. “I’m not suggesting it was a deliberate release,” Cruz told Yahoo Finance, but “there has to be real accountability if the Chinese government bears direct responsibility for the origin of this virus.”

Just a day before Cruz’s interview, on April 15, Trump was asked about the possibility that the virus emanated from a lab. He responded by noting, “more and more, we’re hearing the story and we’ll see.”

Cruz made his case on what he acknowledged was circumstantial evidence; Chinese officials have flatly denied that the lab was involved.

On Thursday, the president went much further when asked if he had seen evidence that gave him a “high degree of confidence” that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory. “Yes, I have,” he said. Pressed on what gave him his confidence, Trump demurred: “I’m not allowed to tell you that.” 

An aerial view shows the P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China’s central Hubei province on April 17. (HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Trump did not specify whether he thought the virus was made in the lab or if it occurred naturally, but was being studied and somehow released. Academic studies of the virus have found evidence showing the virus itself likely emerged naturally.

The Director of National Intelligence, just hours earlier, had released a statement saying the intelligence community was looking into “whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”

Trump also brought up the possibility that Chinese actions might have allowed the pandemic to spread.  “They were either unable to [contain it] or they chose not to,” he said Thursday, later adding it’s a possibility “they let it spread.”

Concrete evidence of that, according to Carano, would be a worst-case scenario. “If you could prove that, I think that would be pretty damning,” he said.

No evidence has emerged of China intentionally allowing the virus to spread around the world.

Either way, the president is going all in on his China rhetoric, said Barfield, largely because of the election in November. “They really do want to turn our attention, turn the nation’s attention to China and run on blaming this on China,” he said of Republicans.

The positive way Trump has talked about China in recent months is “just not what Americans want to hear right now,” Carafano said.

As Trump says of his previous rhetoric: “This was before the virus, of course I’m going to be complimentary.”

What the government could do about it

GOP lawmakers, such as Senators Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton, have proposed a range of punishments, including having Beijing “pay back all nations impacted” and having China forgive U.S. debt or sanctioning foreign officials who give false information.

Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was one of the first officials to suggest the virus might have originated in a lab. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Cruz introduced legislation to sanction Chinese officials found to be involved in censorship of information about the outbreak.

Trump has not spoken in depth about what a punishment for the country might look like beyond expressing support for shifting medical supply lines away from China as well as more tariffs. The Washington Post has reported that Trump aides are exploring ideas for “punishing or demanding financial compensation from China.”

Carafano understands the anger, but “in some cases these things would actually undermine U.S. strengths or be very difficult or really complicate foreign policy,” he said. “The reality is nothing matters unless we get this economy up and running.”

Publicly, Trump says the investigation is ongoing and “we should have the answer to that in the not-too-distant future and that will determine a lot how I feel about China.”

Ben Werschkul is a producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

Read more:

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