WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s stepped-up efforts to blame China and the World Health Organization for the coronavirus pandemic’s toll may require collective amnesia of his recent lavish praise of both to work.
“The World Health Organization failed to independently investigate credible reports that conflicted directly with the Chinese government’s official accounts,” Trump wrote in a new letter to the WHO threatening to end U.S. funding permanently. “The World Health Organization has been curiously insistent on praising China for its alleged ‘transparency.’”
What the five-page letter, dated Monday, fails to note is his own repeated praise of both China and its dictator, Xi Jinping ― including for that same “alleged transparency.”
“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus,” Trump wrote in a Jan. 24 Twitter post. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
It was neither the first nor the last such tribute. On Jan. 22, the first day Trump spoke publicly about the coronavirus, he told Fox News there was nothing to worry about. “It’s all taken care of. And China is working very hard on the problem. We spoke about it and China is working very hard on it.”
U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands after a bilateral meeting at Mar-a-Lago on April 7, 2017, in Palm Beach, Florida.
Even two months later, Trump was still lauding China and Xi. “Look, I have a very good relationship with President Xi and they went through a lot. You know some people say other things. They went through a lot. They lost thousands of people. They’ve been through hell,” he told reporters on March 24.
Josh Schwerin, senior strategist with the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, said Trump’s ploy is obvious.
“Trump’s failure to act let the virus spread like wildfire in America and he now hopes that if the whole world is set ablaze, nobody will notice the damage he did at home,” Schwerin said. “Trump lies to distract from his early failures but his ongoing failures should worry us just as much.”
Alyssah Farah, director of strategic communications at the White House, said Trump’s earlier public comments about China were mindful of the bigger picture, including a trade agreement the president signed with that nation on Jan. 15. “The U.S.’s relationship with China is multifaceted,” she said. “The president has a duty to try to maintain healthy diplomatic relations. However, less than a week later, the president shut down travel from China, saving countless American lives. Actions speak louder than words.”
But public health experts believe that Trump’s Jan. 31 decision to stop foreigners who had been in China during the previous 14 days from entering the U.S. ― which both Trump and his supporters have touted for months as having solved the coronavirus problem ― at best bought a few weeks of time to prepare for the pandemic’s spread here. Trump did little to almost nothing to prepare, though, in January, February and right up till March 16, when he first appeared to take the threat seriously.
Trump now claims that China and the WHO withheld information from him and the world. Ironically, his letter lays out a clear timeline of the various events associated with the virus’s outbreak that Trump ignored for months ― events that his own agencies had noted and informed him about starting in early January.
The president’s letter mentions reports in Chinese media in December of an outbreak in the city of Wuhan and how that information was passed on to the WHO by Taiwanese officials on Dec. 31.
Yet those details and many more were also known to U.S. intelligence agencies, the State Department and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention largely in real time, according to one former White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
This material began showing up in Trump’s intelligence briefing material in early January, the official said. But Trump did not have an intelligence briefing scheduled until Jan. 6 and only nine scheduled all month. “The entire month of January was lost,” the official said.
“It’s jarring to see Trump’s letter invoke many of the data points that were publicly available in December and January to which he continued to turn a blind eye long after the WHO started sounding the alarm about the impending pandemic,” said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and a spokesman for the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. “You don’t have to believe the WHO’s response was perfect ― it wasn’t, of course ― to find fault with Trump’s deeply flawed approach, which essentially amounted to empty praise of Beijing until his sudden 180, after which he’s offered nothing but blame.”
Trump repeatedly criticized Democrats in Congress, mayors and governors, the news media and Obama for the pandemic, even as he continued to praise Xi for his actions to contain the disease ― despite the facts that Xi did not contain the disease and that his cover-up efforts hastened its spread around the world. On April 7, Trump accused the WHO of failing to warn the world about the threat, but then explicitly stated why he had praised Xi for being “transparent” when he had not been.
“Well, I did a trade deal with China, where China is supposed to be spending $250 billion in our country,” Trump told reporters, in an explanation he has repeated frequently.
If that deal was the reason for treating China with kid gloves, though, it may already be for naught. The accord is not a traditional free trade agreement, but more of a partial unwinding of Trump’s trade war with China in return for its promise to buy certain quantities of exports from the U.S.
The pandemic’s damage to the economies of both China and the United States has already put that promise in doubt, trade experts said. If China doesn’t buy the promised goods, it is unclear what recourse Trump will have, other than reimposing high tariffs, which would further hurt American manufacturers, who rely on materials from China, and U.S. consumers, who would face higher prices in stores.
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