As Trump faces heat on coronavirus response, Republicans try to elevate China’s role in domestic political debate
This week, they opened a new front — accusing Casten of “spewing Communist Party propaganda to bash the president” over Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Casten’s sin, in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s view, was a pair of conference calls during which he told constituents that China had acted “quickly” and “to their credit … shut down the entire province that this was in, and they seem to largely have isolated the cases.”
As the deadly pathogen has raced through parts of the United States and the Trump administration has struggled to mount a coordinated response, the matter of China’s management of the disease has begun moving to the center of the domestic political debate over who is to blame for its rapid spread.
While Democrats have focused squarely on Trump’s initial attempts to minimize the threat of the virus and his unsteady leadership, Republicans have countered by aiming attention at Beijing’s early coverup of the disease and emerging evidence that the Communist Party has continued to severely underreport the number of cases in China. They have often accused critics of the administration’s handling of the crisis of peddling Chinese talking points.
The GOP argument has been touted most forcefully by longtime China hawks — including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and John Bolton, the former White house national security adviser — who cite the coronavirus outbreak as more evidence of Bejiing’s malign conduct that should accelerate a U.S. strategic pivot toward a more confrontational approach to the rising Asia power. But it also has provided a ballast for Trump’s aides and political allies to try to deflect blame from the president for the crucial weeks his administration squandered in failing to adequately prepare, as Trump dismissed the virus as a flu-like illness that would “miraculously” go away.
“The reality is we could have been better off if China had been more forthcoming,” Vice President Pence said on CNN this week, when asked if the administration had been slow to respond to the outbreak.
The focus on China has transformed beyond the early attempts from conservatives, including Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to label the pathogen the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus,” named after the city where it originated. Trump said that rhetorical strategy, which drew criticism from Democrats that the language was xenophobic, was an effort to counter false Communist Party propaganda that the virus was deliberately let loose in Wuhan by U.S. military personnel.
The China hard-liners were buoyed this week by a Bloomberg News report that U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Beijing — after initially trying to conceal the first reports of the novel coronavirus — has intentionally underreported cases and deaths in recent weeks in a bid to demonstrate that it has gained control of the outbreak. Businesses are reopening in the country, and China has begun offering massive aid to nations — including shipments of masks and other medical items to the United States — in a bid to rehabilitate its reputation.
To some leading Republicans, the intelligence assessments offer proof that the United States, where confirmed infections have topped 266,000 and deaths 6,900, should not be negatively compared to China, which officially has reported 82,500 infections and 3,300 deaths.
“Beyond dispute that #China’s Communist Party has lied about #Coronavirus at every stage of pandemic,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote in a tweet this week. “Yet in their reporting, tweets & discussions some continue to spread Chinese govt propaganda negatively contrasting our numbers to fake Chinese govt ones.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement: “The claim that the United States has more coronavirus deaths than China is false.”
Tump has shifted his rethoric on China, having recently adopted a more conciliatory tone and dropping the “Chinese virus” phrase after an hour-long phone call with President Xi Jinping last week in which they pledged to cooperate.
“As to whether or not their numbers are accurate, I’m not an accountant from China,” Trump said Wednesday. “I think we all understand where it came from and President Xi understands that. We don’t have to make a big deal out of it.”
Democrats have scoffed at the GOP’s case that China’s lack of transparency somehow absolves the administration of its missteps, which include a failure to ensure states had access to virus testing kits and other crucial supplies. They note that Trump in January and February publicly touted Xi’s suggestion that the virus would peter out as the weather warmed.
In fact, new Trump administration projection models this week showed the pandemic could kill up to 240,000 people in the United States by mid-June, even with strict mitigation measures in place this month in most states. The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had warned in January and February of the threat of a pandemic in classified reports, even as Trump minimized the threat in public.
“Trump’s new argument that the failure to prepare for the pandemic is not his fault because he got played the [fool] by China seems like a message that was not well-thought out,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama White House aide, wrote on Twitter.
“I think there is genuine frustration and some outrage about Chinese behavior throughout this process, but it’s a big stretch to say that absolves anybody from having been underprepared for what would hit or downplaying it too long,” said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for New American Security who has advised Republican presidential candidates. “It’s too simple an answer to say none of this would have happened had we known the real number of cases in Wuhan a couple weeks earlier.”
But on the campaign trail, the argument over China’s role has accelerated. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel accused the Chinese government of waging a “dishonesty campaign,” and her aides have sought to portray former vice president Joe Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, as soft on Beijing.
Biden’s campaign “is deceiving the American people by failing to mention China in their bogus explainer on how we got here. Reminder: China is trying to coverup their role in the coronavirus outbreak,” Steve Guest, the RNC’s rapid response director, wrote in a blog post last month.
In a statement, Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman, said the former vice president “publicly warned Donald Trump not to buy China’s spin … but instead Trump praised China’s handling of the outbreak numerous times. If Donald Trump thinks it’s ‘leadership’ to complain that his failure to prepare our nation for the worst public health crisis in generations is excused because he trusted Chinese government propaganda more than American medical, intelligence, and military experts, then that says a great deal about why the United States has more coronavirus cases than any other country.”
In Illinois, Casten, who represents a suburban Chicago House district that once belonged to the late Henry Hyde, a powerful Republican, expressed irritation at the attacks from the NRCC.
Chris Pack, an NRCC spokesman, said the organization highlighted Casten’s remarks on China because “he was praising their response to how they handled the coronavirus as if they were not lying their about their death counts. That deserves no praise whatsoever.”
In an interview, Casten defended his position that China, along with other Asian nations, including South Korea and Japan, which had dealt with a SARS virus outbreak in the early 2000s, had moved with more urgency to shut down schools and take proactive measures to contain the virus.
“A reasonable critic of China might say if they had moved more quickly it might have constrained it even more,” Casten said. “But leaving that aside, our own president was saying less than a month ago this was the same as the flu.”