In a transparent attempt to distract from his continuing failure to lead an effective response to a disastrous public health crisis, the great showrunner in the White House is in the process of introducing a new story arc: an epic battle with an evil China.
It involves blaming China for a virus that was most likely uncontainable, making all sorts of dark insinuations and demanding that his intelligence services find grist for anti-Chinese conspiracy theories, and threatening massive economic retaliation, apparently even to the point of defaulting on U.S. debt.
Nothing will come of this.
He is all talk and no action, even when the nation desperately needs it.
But here's what Trump may accomplish: an ugly wave of hostility toward China, Chinese people — including immigrants and Chinese-Americans — and anyone whom Trump-addled yahoos think even looks Chinese.
It could further destabilize the world economy — and it will almost certainly damage the global coordination needed to recover from the virus.
It's hard to imagine the press not jumping on this new shiny object with enthusiasm, but reporters and editors need to remind the public at every opportunity what Trump's real and obvious goals are. He hopes to change the subject from his own incompetence, shift blame, and further inflame his base with nationalistic fury.
There also may be a more subtle, psychological objective to this move as well: It meets the president's need to be seen as both personally victimized and enormously heroic at the same time.
And while the Chinese government's conduct has not been entirely exemplary, responsible news organizations should oppose and resist the demonization of China and the Chinese people.
Even if reporters can't turn to the opposition party for an alternate view — to this point, Democrats seem to be engaging Republicans in a battle over who can hate China more — they should give voice to knowledgeable, mainstream thinkers who can put Trump's xenophobic, destructive, vindictive and overly personal approach to U.S. foreign policy in its proper context.
It may be up to the press to prevent a new Red Scare.
Out to get him?
The flat-out lunacy — indeed, paranoia — of Trump's views regarding China was fully on display in a Reuters interview conducted on Wednesday.
Steve Holland wrote: "Trump said he believes China's handling of the coronavirus pandemic is proof that Beijing 'will do anything they can' to make him lose his re-election bid in November."
The direct quotes seemed ambiguous, honestly, as to whether Trump was directly connecting the Chinese government's virus response to its views of him personally. (I'd like to see a full transcript!)
But Trump apparently did say, at least somewhat in the context of the virus: "China will do anything they can to have me lose this race."
Holland writes that Trump also said "he believes Beijing wants his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, to win the election to ease the pressure Trump has placed on China over trade and other issues."
Trump has already floated the idea that China was backing Biden, in a tweet on April 18:
But of course not one penny of those tariffs has actually been paid by China. Tariffs are paid by U.S. importers, and increased costs are generally passed to consumers in the form of higher prices.
Here's another reality check: Anna Fifield reported for the Washington Post in November that Chinese government officials are actually rooting for Trump in November — because they prefer his transactional approach over one that is driven by principles.
Trump repeated these assertions on Thursday evening during a Q&A session after remarks about the elderly. "China doesn't want to see me re-elected," he said, "and the reason is we are getting billions and billions of dollars — many billions of dollars a month — from China."
Then he said, "I don't want … to cast any dispersions [sic], just that China would like to see Sleepy Joe Biden. They would take this country for a ride like you've never seen before."
Insinuations and conspiracy theories
New York Times reporters Mark Mazzetti, Julian E. Barnes, Edward Wong and Adam Goldman disclosed on Thursday that Trump White House officials "have pushed American spy agencies to hunt for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that a government laboratory in Wuhan, China, was the origin of the coronavirus outbreak."
The next sentence (hurray!): "The effort comes as President Trump escalates a public campaign to blame China for the pandemic."
Their article made it clear that some people inside the intelligence community believe Trump is trying to use this as a political weapon:
A former intelligence official described senior aides' repeated emphasis of the lab theory as "conclusion shopping," a disparaging term among analysts that has echoes of the Bush administration's 2002 push for assessments saying that Iraq had weapons of mass of destruction and links to Al Qaeda, perhaps the most notorious example of the politicization of intelligence.
Then, on Thursday evening, Trump fueled those conspiracy theories. Asked if he had seen anything that gave him "a high degree of confidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of this virus," Trump answered "Yes, I have. Yes, I have."
Asked what information he had to support his view, he replied: "I can't tell you that. I'm not allowed to tell you that."
Vague insinuations could end up being his tactic of choice. Asked Thursday if he was saying the Chinese government had let the virus spread intentionally, he said: "One of two things happened. They didn't do it and they couldn't do it, from a competence standpoint. Or they let it spread. I would say probably it got out of control."
He continued: "Whether they made a mistake, or whether it started off as a mistake, and then they made another one — or did somebody do something on purpose?"
Making China pay
Jeff Stein, Carol D. Leonnig, Josh Dawsey and Gerry Shih reported in the Washington Post that the White House is exploring "proposals for punishing or demanding financial compensation from China for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic."
They quoted one senior adviser saying: "Punishing China is definitely where the president's head is at right now."
The Post reporters appropriately noted way up high that "The move could splinter already strained relations between the two superpowers at a perilous moment for the global economy."
They could, however, also have noted that threats emerging from Trump's White House rarely materialize. And they could have been a lot more assertive about pointing out the absurdity of the specific ideas floated by the Trump officials.
One idea involves "stripping China of its 'sovereign immunity,' aiming to enable the U.S. government or victims to sue China for damages." The reporters at least explained that "Legal experts say an attempt to limit China's sovereign immunity would be extremely difficult to accomplish and may require congressional legislation."
But the second, even crazier idea, is apparently to have the U.S. "cancel part of its debt obligations to China."
This elicited a quick denial from two "senior White House economic officials," which was then inserted into the story.
But financial reporters from across the Internet responded with the incredulity that was missing from the story.
Kai Ryssdal, host of NPR's "Marketplace," tweeted:
Felix Salmon, Axios financial correspondent, tweeted:
Ben White, Politico economic correspondent, tweeted:
But not to worry, because he'll never do it.
In fact, by Thursday evening, Trump was already backtracking. Asked if was really considering not paying U.S. debt obligations to China, Trump said: "I can do it differently, but even for more money, just by putting on tariffs. So I don't have to do that. It's approximately a trillion dollars… But we could do that, probably, in a little bit more of a forthright manner."
U.S.-China relations in context
Eric Levitz published a marvelous interview in New York magazine on Thursday morning with the historian and author Mike Davis. One question was about China.
Davis acknowledged that there was undeniably an initial attempt by the local government in Wuhan to cover up the extent of the outbreak. I found what he had to say next eye-opening:
But as far as the allegation that Beijing did not inform the international community in a timely manner, this seems to be an entirely different story. China detected the first unusual pneumonia outbreaks at the beginning of December. They announced that an unknown virus was responsible in a little more than a week. They sequenced the whole genome of the virus. The WHO was informed about this almost immediately. Trump doesn't seem to understand the number of Americans who work for the WHO and who were in almost instant contact.
The "smoking gun" that's usually brought in evidence against the Chinese was a false social-media message that denied the existence of human-to-human spread. But the Chinese government immediately followed that with an official statement that said yes, there is human-to-human spread. So I'm very confused about that. I don't see the evidence that the Chinese scientific community or the WHO covered that up….
But by playing the "yellow fear," Trump is destroying the alliance — the medical and scientific alliance — that is absolutely most important, and that's the cooperation between the scientific communities of the United States and China. That's where most of the cutting-edge research is going to be done. And the research community has probably broken all records for cooperation since the pandemic began.
The U.S. foreign policy establishment strongly supports cooperation with China. Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi — a top Asia policy official in the Obama administration, and a Brookings Institution China expert, respectively – wrote for Foreign Policy in March that the coronavirus crisis requires "strong leadership" by the U.S. of "a coordinated global response."
They advised against "getting consumed by a war of narratives about who responded better":
Little is gained by repeatedly emphasizing the origins of the coronavirus — which are already widely known despite China's propaganda — or engaging in petty tit-for-tat rhetorical exchanges with Beijing. As Chinese officials accuse the U.S. military of spreading the virus and lambaste U.S. efforts, Washington should respond when necessary but generally resist the temptation to put China at the center of its coronavirus messaging.
Not with this president.
Campbell and Dosh continued:
[T]here is much Washington and Beijing could do together for the world's benefit: coordinating vaccine research and clinical trials as well as fiscal stimulus; sharing information; cooperating on industrial mobilization (on machines for producing critical respirator components or ventilator parts, for instance); and offering joint assistance to others.
Trump's ever-changing China rhetoric
Trump's newfound righteous fury toward China is precisely the kind of plot twist that delights reality TV audiences.
Throughout January and February, Trump "touted China's government for its transparency and hard work to defeat the coronavirus that causes the illness," as Politico's Myah Ward explained. Ward "compiled a list of 15 times the president hailed China for its push to prevent a pandemic in the early months of 2020."
CNN counted 12.
But in mid-April, Trump's rhetoric took an ominous turn. Talking about Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump said on April 19:
I'm not happy. And I let him know I'm not happy. So, you know, we had a great relationship with — we had a very bad relationship with China. Then we had a good relationship, because we made a great deal. But we're not happy. This is not a good thing that happened. It came out of China, so we're not — we're not in a position where we're going to say much yet.
Trump's most aggressive comments came on April 27, in response to goading, arguably inaccurate questions from reporters for two far-right news organizations.
First, Charlie Spiering of Breitbart News asked:
[A] majority of polls show that Americans blame China for the spread of the coronavirus, and yet they're taking advantage of the crisis to make the world more dependent on their supply chains. How do you get — how do you hold China accountable and how do you keep our country — how do you incentivize our businesses?
Trump repeated that "we are not happy with China," and then insisted:
We are not happy with that whole situation because we believe it could have been stopped at the source, it could have been stopped quickly, and it wouldn't have spread all over the world. And we think that should have happened. So we'll let you know at the appropriate time, but we are doing serious investigations.
Esmerelda Robinson of Newsmax then chimed in with a question based on a lie:
Following up on Charlie's question on making China — holding them responsible — Germany sent a bill to China for $130 billion in — excuse me, 130 billion euros — for the damages caused by the coronavirus. Would your administration look at doing the same?
But as FullFact and others have reported, Germany has never sent China any kind of bill. An alleged bill, reported by the British tabloid Daily Express, was actually a fanciful illustration by Germany's largest newspaper, Bild, for an article speculating on the economic damages of the virus.
Trump, however, was happy to riff on the premise:
Well, we can do something much easier than that. We have ways of doing things a lot easier than that. But Germany is looking at things and we're looking at things. And we're talking about a lot more money than Germany is talking about…. We haven't determined the final amount yet … it's very substantial.
Trump has said several times that the virus could and should have been stopped — clearly with the intent of blaming China for not doing so.
One statement he made to that effect, however, was interpreted by some cynical observers as more appropriately referring to himself — to his refusal to acknowledge the likelihood that the virus would spread in the U.S., his continued resistance to widespread testing and so on.
"It could have been stopped and it could have been stopped short," Trump said on April 27. "But somebody a long time ago, it seems, decided not to do it that way."