President Donald Trump accused China of weaponizing the coronavirus pandemic to thwart his re-election prospects, adding in an Oval Office interview that his administration was plotting retaliatory action.
"China will do anything they can to have me lose this race," Trump told Reuters on Wednesday, claiming that China's handling of the pandemic was part of an alleged effort to elect presumptive Democratic opponent Joe Biden.
"They're constantly using public relations to try to make it like they're innocent parties," the president said.
Trump has claimed that China alone is responsible for a pandemic which has killed at least 60,000 people in the U.S. to date and felled a global domino board of economic shutdowns. The president told Reuters that the first phase of the trade deal he recently struck with Xi was "upset very badly" by the global economic fallout.
Asked what options he was weighing, Trump said a number were available. "I can do a lot," he teased without offering specifics.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that the administration was contemplating a response, which could include stripping China's "sovereign immunity" and allowing the U.S. government or citizens to sue the country. Experts caution such a move might require congressional legislation.
Other officials have reportedly floated the option of canceling some U.S. debt obligations to China, but discussions remain preliminary. "Little formal work has begun on turning these initial ideas into reality," according to The Post.
The president himself has weathered an unbroken stream of brickbats from Democrats and his own party, who have criticized the administration's bungled response as the outbreak poured over into the country.
A memo leaked this week from the Senate Republicans' national campaign organization, instructed senators running for re-election to do the following: "Don't defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban — attack China."
The memo advised candidates to respond to coronavirus questions by saying, "I wish that everyone acted earlier — that includes our elected officials, the World Health Organization and the CDC."
Trump often points to his partial travel ban on China in late January, and claims Beijing should have given the world a better heads-up. But a recent Washington Post report revealed that U.S. officials included information about the outbreak in at least a dozen of Trump's daily intelligence briefings.
A spokesman for China's foreign ministry responded to Trump's accusations of election meddling by saying, "The U.S. presidential election is an internal affair, we have no interest in interfering in it. We hope the people of the U.S. will not drag China into its election politics."
The presidential campaigns of both Trump and Biden have invoked China in ads. The Trump campaign recently released a series of ads smearing the former vice president as "Beijing Biden," an allusion to unproven allegations originating from Rudy Giuliani that Biden's family siphoned illicit billions from dealings in China. The Biden campaign put out a video titled, "Trump's failure to stand up to China."
Trump "ignored the warnings of health experts and intelligence agencies, and put his trust in China's leaders instead. And now, we're all paying the price," Biden says in the video.
Public health experts and activists have condemned Beijing's response, including authoritarian tactics, silencing internal critics and a laggard effort to contain Wuhan, the province where the virus originated.
The president maintains that he is strong on China, despite routinely professing admiration for Chinese President Xi Jinping, including for actions surrounding the pandemic. Trump tweeted in February that Xi "is strong, sharp and powerfully focused" on "what will be a very successful operation," adding that China had shown "great discipline." Trump also assured the world in February and March that his administration was "working closely" with the Xi regime.
He said he would seek more than $160 billion from the Chinese government in compensation for the global pandemic at a press conference this week.